By: Karen Yontz Center StaffCould there be a more quintessential summer activity than lighting the grill and cooking up a meal? Probably not. But over the years, as we’ve learned more about heart-healthy foods and cooking methods, it seems as though maybe grilling isn’t the healthiest choice for our summer dinners. The good news is that there are ways to make sure your grilling is as heart-healthy (and just plain healthy) as possible. And the secrets go beyond the meat.
First off, let’s be real. You need to choose heart-healthy proteins and other foods to grill. While many of us love our burgers, brats, and hot dogs, those aren’t necessarily the best choices. Many of these proteins will form harmful chemicals known as AGEs (advanced glycation end products) when grilled at a high temperature. Higher intakes of AGEs are associated with increased inflammation and the development or progression of heart disease and diabetes. Choose chicken, pork, or fish when grilling. It’s OK to have red meat on occasion, maybe two or three times over the course of your summer grilling season, but it’s best to skip the processed meats altogether. This also includes new “meatless” options—they might not have meat in them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy. Many of them are as processed as burgers made with meat so be sure to read labels when you’re at the store. When you do choose your meat, it’s best to choose the leanest cut available and trim any excess fat. Go ahead and throw some vegetables and fruits on the grill as well. Not only is eating more of these foods good for you, the antioxidants and phytochemicals in produce provide additional protection from some of the harmful compounds produced when grilling.
What about those harmful chemicals? You’ve probably heard that eating grilled food can cause cancer. While there is a definite link that has been found between the two, there are ways to make sure you can still get all of that amazing grilled flavor while keeping your food free of cancer-causing compounds like Heterocyclic Amines (HCA) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). HCAs and PAHs are formed by putting food (primarily meats) in contact with intense heat and flame. HCAs and PAHs are formed mostly by fat—either by fat being heated to extreme temps or by the smoke created by fat burning. And for those who don’t clean your grill very often because you think that will get rid of the ‘flavor”, HCAs and PAHs can be formed by the grease and fat that builds up on your grill too.
How can you make sure that you aren’t accidently taking your dinner into the danger zone? Luckily, it’s not that hard. As mentioned before, choose a healthier type of meat, choose the leanest cut you can, and cut off any excess fat. If you have a larger cut of meat, cut it into small pieces so it cooks faster, or put the cut on the grill for a few minutes to get the grill marks and some flavor, and then finish cooking it in the oven at a lower temp. Keep your grill clean and avoid flare-ups that can char meat. Use marinades that have olive oil and/or acid (i.e. vinegar, citrus juice, etc.) and marinate for at least 30 minutes to cut down the production of HCAs and PAHs. Adding herbs like basil, rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano, or sage to your marinade reduces HCA formation dramatically and their antioxidants reduce the formation of free radicals when the meat hits the heat. And as mentioned above, add vegetables and fruit to your grilling repertoire to get even more heart-healthy benefits.
With a little preparation and patience, your grill will not only be the hot spot of your summer, but the heart-healthiest place too!