Spring is in the air, the sun is shining, and that grill sitting quietly on the back deck or in the garage may be starting to tempt you. At least here, in the Midwest, the temptation of grilling has already begun to “fire up” some eager outdoor cooks. If you live in some consistently warmer climates, such as the West Coast or in the South, you may even utilize your grill daily. However, you may ponder at times the nutritional value of the food you grill or what you could do differently to give your appetite for the grill that extra health nudge.
Here are some nutrition considerations for next time you decide to fire up the grill:
Gas vs. Charcoal?
The age-old debate over which grilling method is “better” involves multiple variables, from flavor to cost to convenience. While no studies prove that either is healthier, gas does burn cleaner. Charcoal grills emit more carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and soot into the atmosphere, contributing to increased pollution and higher concentrations of ground-level ozone. From a taste perspective, on the other hand, many people prefer the smokier, richer taste of food cooked on a charcoal grill. If you do choose charcoal grilling, consider additive-free lump charcoal, which is just charred wood. Conventional briquettes may contain wood scraps and sawdust as well as coal dust, sodium nitrate, borax and additives like paraffin or lighter fluid.
Main course – Go lean.
To avoid a different class of cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), grill leaner meat cuts that will drip less and cause fewer flare-ups and smoke. PAHs form in smoke and are deposited on the outside of meat. Since the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting all red meat to no more than three ounces a day, another way to reduce your cancer risk when grilling is to change what you grill. Fish and marinated skinless chicken are both lean options, great on the grill, and are also considered gentler on cholesterol levels. Note, however, that HCAs can still form on them, so grilling technique is still important. If you still want to eat red meat, make kabobs. The small pieces of meat cook quickly, and you can add lots of vegetables.
Using a marinade can help minimize development of HCAs. When researchers at Lawrence Livermore national Laboratory in Livermore, CA, soaked chicken breasts in a mixture of brown sugar, olive oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice, and salt for 4 hours they developed up to 99% fewer HCAs after 20 minutes of grilling than unmarinated chicken did. Since most marinades require oil, choose more heart friendly oils such as olive oil and canola oil. If using garlic in a marinade, let crushed garlic stand for about 10 to 15 minutes after chopping before adding it to a sizzling pan or grill. High temperatures destroy allinase, garlic’s most important cancer-fighting and immunity-boosting enzyme.
Always wash hands sufficiently before, during, and after preparing each item. For an idea of adequate hand washing time, sing the classic “Happy Birthday” tune to yourself while washing, which helps provide an appropriate time frame for washing. Preheat your grill 15 to 25 minutes before you start cooking and clean the rack with a long-handled wire grill brush. It is easier to remove debris when the grill is hot, so after preheating, use the brush on your grill rack to clean off charred debris from prior meals. Scrape again immediately after use. Do not use the same plates, cutting board, and utensils for raw meat as for cooked meat without washing thoroughly with hot soapy water in between contact.
Cleaning should also be done after peeling fruits and vegetables and before further cutting, since bacteria from the outside of raw produce can be transferred to the inside when it is cut or peeled. Remove the grit and potential pathogens on produce with distilled water, and a vegetable brush for thick skinned vegetables. Because some produce washes are costly, and data is not conclusive on any type of superiority of these washes, consumers are generally advised just to wash produce with distilled water. Soak all produce for one to two minutes to reduce the risk of food-borne illness; fragile produce can be put in a colander and spray it with distilled water. Remember that homegrown produce should also be washed.
Beware of HCAs.
Whether you are using red meat, poultry or seafood, substances in the muscle proteins of these foods react under high heat to form carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs can damage the DNA of our genes, beginning the process of cancer development. A simple way to decrease formation of carcinogenic HCAs is to cook your meat at slightly lower temperatures, by turning the gas down or waiting for charcoal to become low-burning embers. Also, by raising the grilling surface from the heat source you can reduce black char that can form on meat. This char has a high carcinogen content. Although it is a good idea to use an instant-read thermometer to be sure meat is thoroughly cooked, the further you cook meat past that point, the more HCAs will form.
A higher consumption of well-done meat is linked with two to five times more colon cancer and two to three times more breast cancer. Risk of cancers of the stomach, pancreas and prostate may also increase.
Eat your fruits and vegetables and maximize their value.
The best choice for grilling is fruits and vegetables, because they do not form HCAs. These foods also supply a whole range of cancer-fighting nutrients and phytochemicals. In fact, the natural phytochemicals in vegetables stimulate enzymes that can convert HCAs to an inactive, stable form that is easily eliminated from the body. When slicing and dicing fresh produce, cut large pieces which retain more vitamin C. Lots of small portions expose more of the fruit or vegetable to nutrient-leaching oxygen and light. For kabobs, be sure to include some small tomatoes on each skewer. Heating lycopene-rich tomatoes instigates a chemical change that makes the heart-healthy nutrient much easier for your body to absorb. Save yourself time, and some key nutrients, by not peeling eggplant, potatoes, and other produce. The peel is a natural barrier against nutrient loss, and many vitamins and minerals are found in the outer skin or just below it. Yam skin is loaded with fiber, and zucchini is full of lutein, which may help prevent age-related macular degeneration.
So, if the grill seems to be calling your name lately, just stop by your favorite grocery store or local farmer’s market, whip up your favorite marinade, grill out, and chill out.
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