Q: Is grilling good or bad for you?
First: my own feelings on the subject. Grilling is mans oldest cooking method and its discovery about 750,000 years ago helped our hominid ancestors evolve into the human beings we are today. If barbecue was really that cancer-producing and bad for you, our species would long since be extinct.
On the contrary, I personally consider grilling to be the world's healthiest cooking method, creating bold, rich, complex, smoky flavors with little or no added fat. Lest you be troubled by the prospect of a relentlessly carnivorous diet, know that meat plays a modest role in much of the world's grilling. Indians, Italians, Spaniards, and Japanese have extensive repertories of grilled seafood, breads, and vegetable dishes, for example, a trend echoed by more and more Americans.
In Asiahome to more than half the world's populationgrilled meats are used more as a condiment than a main dish. In countries as diverse as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan, barbecue consists of a relatively small amount of intensely flavored grilled meat paired with a large proportion of rice, noodles, and vegetables. Even in North America, more and more people are turning to low or no meat grilling.
The other health claim levied against grilling is that it causes cancer. To see how serious this claim is I checked in with health and nutrition writer Ed Blonz.
According to Blonz, who holds a Ph.D. in nutrition and who writes the popular Focus on Nutrition column, the potential problems arise from two aspects of grilling: the charring of proteins over live fire, which produces mutagens (substances capable of causing cells to mutate) and the formation of actual carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), such as benzopyrene, when the fat drippings hit the coals.
Mutagens may or may not be harmful, depending on if and how they cause a cell to mutate. Carcinogens are definitely harmfuldepending on the dose.
So what's a "lethal" dose? According to Blonz, eating 100 charcoal-grilled steaks will statistically increase your odds of dying by one in a million. Blonz goes on to list other activities that statistically increase your odds of death by one in a million. They include rock climbing for 1.5 minutes, bicycle riding for 10 minutes, having one chest X-ray taken in a good hospital, being a 60 year-old man for 20 minutes, and eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter. In other words, the odds increase as you increase these activities, but they still remain pretty negligible.
For people concerned about the cancer risks of grilling, here are some ways to minimize the risk even further.
Cook over a moderate or low fire to reduce the amount of charring. This works well for chicken pieces and thick steaks, like porterhouse. Not so great for thin steaks, chicken breasts, or chops.
Grill fish on a cedar or alder plank. Again, this prevents flare-ups.
Use indirect grilling or smoking. This avoids dripping meat juices and fats and the resulting smoke and flare-ups.
Limit basting while grilling to reduce the smoke.
With barbecue, serve plenty of broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and foods that are rich in vitamins A and C and fiber. These foods contains proven anticarcinogens.
Wear plenty of sunscreen when grilling during daylight hours to reduce the risk of skin cancer. That may just prove to be the greatest cancer risk of all.
Finally, lighten up and don't lose sight of the fact that laughter is the best medicine. I can't think of a single cooking method that comes close to the fun of grilling.