Char None! Healthy Options For High Heat Cooking

Grilling and barbecues are cooking rites of summer. But high heat and open flame cooking can cause a chemical reaction in the foods that are potentially carcinogenic.
07/06/2016 10:50 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2017

I've never been much of a fried food fan but I love the crispy edges of burnt toast and pizza crust, seared salmon skin and grilled veggies. When I was a meat eater we'd always asked for the flavorful "burnt ends" of the barbecued brisket or pork butt.

Grilling and barbecues are cooking rites of summer. But high heat and open flame cooking can cause a chemical reaction in the foods that are potentially carcinogenic.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI):

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame In laboratory experiments, HCAs and PAHs have been found to be mutagenic--that is, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.

Chemistry lesson aside, what can you do to reduce your health risk and still get that flavorful, crisp mouth feel without the carcinogenic risk?

Register Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition Jessica Iannotta, Chief Operating Officer of Savor Health, says: "We recommend marinating meats, cooking on lower heat and using foil to cover the grill and protect food from direct flame. Indoor grills and cast iron grill plans can also give a more authentic charred flavor. Savory marinades and sauces basted on the meat during cooking can also help enhance the barbecue flavor without the burn."

Here are some more cooking tips to make sure your grilled meats don't become a bum steer for your health:

Marinate your meat for at least 30 minutes. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says, "Some evidence suggests that marinating meat with herbs and spices before grilling may cut down on possible carcinogens."

The type of marinade may matter: According to a study conducted at Kansas State University, herbed marinades with rosemary and thyme both boost your immune system and combat cancer-causing carcinogens in meat.

The Food Science Institute found that a steak cooked in a Caribbean marinade had an 88 percent drop in HCAs, an herb marinade accounted for a 72 percent drop and a Southwestern mixture had a 57 percent drop. I like marinating with balsamic vinegar, Worcester sauce and Jamaican Pickapeppa Sauce myself. They all have a great savory-sweet taste.

Pre-cook in a microwave.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) says, "Using a microwave oven to cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures can also substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking."

Flip your food. The NCI also suggests, "Continuously turning meat over on a high heat source can substantially reduce HCA formation compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often."

Avoid processed meats. Science has shown that consumption of processed meats is linked to increase risk for several types of cancer including but not limited to colorectal and prostate.

Grill fish or vegetables instead. Because HCAs and PAHs form in muscle proteins vegetables are a healthier options. Portobello mushrooms, squashes and eggplant are especially good for grilling.

Bottom line. Fire up the flavor with marinades of fresh herbs and spices. Turn down the flame. Flip your food and add in more vegetables.