Perryman Nutrition Column: Grilling for all Seasons

Note to Reporters: The following column was written by Shirley Perryman. Perryman is an Extension specialist in the Colorado State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences. Perryman also is a registered dietitian.

The official end of summer and the beginning of fall will arrive all too soon. Many equate summer days with firing up the grill though others will brave the elements year round for that taste of barbeque.

Grilling may be seen as an easier way to prepare meat because it minimizes kitchen clean-up and healthier because it allows the fat to drip away from the meat minimizing calories. While grilled food is tasty, research has shown a link between inhaling smoke from the grill and eating grilled, well-done meat with the risk for certain kinds of cancer.

When beef, pork, poultry and fish are cooked at too high a temperature, fat drips down onto the coals and may release toxins through the smoke. Heterocyclic amines — called HCAs — and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – or PAHs — are toxins which form when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Those toxins are carcinogens whether ingested in the meat or inhaled in the smoke. Take note that you can inhale the smoke whether you’re the primary griller or simply standing nearby.

Grilled meats have a unique flavor many enjoy. To enjoy those grilled flavors without the risk to your health, follow these guidelines:

• Minimize the char: Control the grilling temperatures to allow meat to be fully cooked without blackening the meat. Keep a spray bottle of water handy in case of a flare-up. If some of the meat is charred, trim and toss those pieces. Raise the rack to a higher grilling position or adjust the flame to low on a gas grill. Another option is indirect grilling, which means grilling the meat off to the side of the heat source.

• Use the microwave: Precook the meat in the microwave for several minutes before finishing it on the grill. Do not hold the precooked meat for any period of time. Take it immediately to the grill to avoid food safety concerns. Pre-cooking will minimize the amount of juice that drops on the heat source.

• Opt for lean: The leaner the meat, the less likely flare-ups will occur minimizing the possibility of inhaled smoke and charred meat. Trim as much visible fat as possible. New York strip, flank, top sirloin and tenderloin steaks are the best bets for beef—all coming in at 40 percent of calories from fat or less. When someone suggests throwing steaks on the grill, ask if they mean rib-eye, t-bone or porterhouse steaks. All of these get more than half of their calories from fat.

• Control the portion: A portion of meat is considered to be 3 to 4 ounces and will cook in a shorter amount of time than a much larger piece. Larger serving sizes mean increasing exposure to possible carcinogens due to increased cooking times.

• Check for doneness: Know the approximate length of grilling time to completely cook the meat and remove it as soon as it is fully cooked, but before it is blackened. To be sure the meat is thoroughly cooked use a meat thermometer. For specific meat thermometer readings for level of doneness visit

• Marinate for flavor and health: Research has demonstrated that marinating reduces the buildup of toxins. Add good flavor to grilled meats by experimenting with your favorite herbs. Studies suggest that rosemary, thyme oregano, basil and garlic can contribute to healthier grilled meat.

What’s the alternative? Because these cancer-causing substances are linked to a primary protein-source like meat, vegetable-based protein veggie burgers and hot dogs have only small amounts of HCAs and PAHs when grilled and may be better choices. Though the safe amount of grilled meats to eat is unknown, minimize your risks and enjoy the flavor of grilled foods for all seasons without impacting your health.