What Science Says About Grilling and How to Do It Healthier This Year!

Summer without a barbeque? No way! Spending time with friends and family and smelling all those marinated delicacies is about as close as it gets to perfection! We love grilling as much as the next person, especially when we’re cooking up some delicious ManaBurgers. But just like everything else in life, grilling has its pluses and minuses. On one hand, that smoky aroma and taste is unbeatable, but on the other hand, they come with some potential health risks. We have thoroughly researched the science of grilling and in this blog bring you a ton of facts, tips, and tricks to help you get the most out of your grill sessions without jeopardizing your health. Let’s get into it!

Grilling is not just about delicious, smoky food, but about fun, friends, and fresh air. Put simply, it contributes to our mental well-being. But as we mentioned, there are certain health risks associated with grilling. Research, such as a study published in Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis in 2004, indicates that grilling is the method of food preparation that poses the greatest risk to our health.

The dark side of grilling: What science says

Boiling or steaming food is healthy, but typically less tasty, which is why we more often fry, bake, roast, or grill. In other words, we tend to cook using higher temperatures. We understand, of course, that food is not just about nutrition, but about enjoyment, and food cooked at higher temperatures usually tastes and smells better. Yet a number of studies published in the last two decades have provided evidence that grilling and roasting can increase the risk of cancer. How?

The burning of charcoal or wood produces chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are conducive to the development of cancer. PAHs occur in a number of ways. The most frequent of these is the pyrolysis of fat (decomposition at high temperatures); when it drips from the grate of the grill onto the hot wood or coal underneath, it burns imperfectly and the resulting toxic compounds rise up with the smoke and stick to the surface of the food. 

With regard to meat, the fattier it is, the more PAHs are produced during grilling. PAHs also occur directly on the surface of food if it is exposed to direct flame or really high temperatures, in particular those above 750 °F. PAHs also contribute to environmental pollution.

The ManaBurger is lower in fat, thanks to which it browns more gradually. It also doesn't require any additional oil, which may drip onto the charcoal.

Another group of dangerous chemicals produced when cooking food is heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These are formed during chemical reactions during the heat treatment of meat, especially during the browning process, as it begins to release juice. The chemical reactions are between naturally occurring amino acids, sugars, and creatine. According to a 2011 study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology, HCAs occur mainly during the grilling of red meat, but also poultry and fish.

Because PAHs and HCAs are foreign to our bodies, our bodies try to eliminate them by metabolizing specific enzymes in the liver, which can—paradoxically—produce even more toxic by-products.
These toxic intermediary products of hepatic metabolism can cause inflammation and oxidative stress in body tissue, and thus also contribute to the development of degenerative diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer.

The risks are also associated with plant foods

To make matters worse, health risks are associated not only with animal foods but plant foods—mostly those that are rich in carbohydrates, such as potatoes, red beets, and apples. During high-temperature treatment, i.e. grilling, frying, and roasting, reactions between carbohydrates and amino acids create the chemical substance acrylamide.

Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US National Toxicology Program (NTS) classify acrylamide as a potential human carcinogen. In 2018, a study published in the renowned magazine Frontiers in Nutrition confirmed the carcinogenic effect in rodents of acrylamide derived from fried or baked foods rich in carbohydrates.

Research has shown that the most effective weapon against acrylamide is a healthy diet rich in natural antioxidants (vitamins, trace minerals, and others), which can eliminate the harmful effects of acrylamide by increasing the activity of antioxidant enzymes and reducing free radicals. Antioxidants also act against toxic metabolites formed during hepatic metabolism of PAHs and HCAs.

We understand that, given the popularity of grilling, these scientific findings are a bit frightening. But things are not as bad as they seem. The problem is not grilling itself, it’s grilling too often, for example every evening. Grilling a burger patty, steak, or ideally a ManaBurger a few times throughout the grill season is no problem at all, especially if you know how to do it the right way.

Tips and tricks: how to grill healthier

While grilling will never be the healthiest way to prepare food, there are a few things you can do to make it healthier!

  1. Clean your grill.
    In the first place, it is important to get rid of the remnants of last year’s cooking experiments. Wiping the grate of the grill is not enough. Make sure to remove any charred and carbonaceous deposits (these contain PAHs and HCAs, and are a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi). They stick to virtually all surfaces of the grill, including the grate, the grease tray, and the burners.

    Carbonaceous impurities can also cause uneven heating of the grill and premature failure of gas burner pipes. We recommend using a wire brush or steel wool to remove these impurities. Once this is done, you can use special cleaning agents for disinfection.

  2. Be patient and make sure your heat is evenly distributed.
    Safest would be an electric or gas grill, which can be fired up almost immediately and allow easy temperature control. If you prefer the more traditional method of grilling, i.e. using charcoal, you’ll need a little bit of patience.


    As kindle, you can use newspaper, lighter fluid, or briquets. Fireplace matches or a chimney starter are good ways to light the initial fire. Once the fire is lit, wait for the kindle to burn and the fire to go out before starting to grill. How do you know when the moment is right? The coal should be glowing red and covered with a layer of grey ash. It shouldn’t be smoking.

    Distribute the charcoal evenly across ⅔ of the grill space (you want to leave some room in case you need to move food away from the heat), or into heat “zones,” so that you can better regulate the temperature of the various foods being grilled. The rule of thumb is: the higher the mound of charcoal, the higher the temperature

  3. Remove as much fat as possible.
    Before grilling, cut any excess fat from the food and use as little oil as possible (ideal lipids are refined coconut oil or clarified butter, both of which have high smoke points). Before placing meat on the grill, let it drip or gently dry it with a paper towel to minimize the oil that drips onto the hot charcoal.

  4. Use special grill trays.
    Because most carcinogens occur when the fat drips onto the heat source, grill trays are recommended—especially if you are cooking fatty meat.

    Or you could try using lava rocks. Cooking on grills with hot lava rocks is much healthier because it prevents fat from dripping into the fire. But a disadvantage of this method is that the food cooked thereby doesn’t have that characteristic “smokey” flavor we all love.

  5. The magic is in the marinade.
    Scientists have found that marinating meat significantly reduces the amount of HCAs that occur when it is cooked. How is that possible? Herbs. According to a scientific study conducted for the Food Safety Consortium by J. Scott, marinades containing rosemary and thyme best reduce HCAs (by up to 87%!). These herbs contain 3 powerful antioxidants in high amounts: carnosic acid, carnosol, and rosemarinic acid. 

    Another study by researchers at Kansas State University found that black pepper in marinades helps reduce the presence of cancer-causing compounds. Garlic and onions also function as strong antioxidants.

    Chemical formula of rosmarinic acid.

  6. Give plant foods a chance.
    As we wrote above, carcinogens are mainly produced during the grilling of meat due to imperfect burning of the fat that drips therefrom and reactions between the sugars and creative contained therein. Fruits and vegetables don’t contain creatine, so cooking them produces fewer HCAs. They also contain lots of healthy antioxidants and fiber, which limit our absorption of harmful substances. So, it makes sense to choose more plant foods when grilling—both for your health and the health of our planet. 

    Try grilling corn, eggplant, zucchini, or peppers. Or, if you want something more “meaty,” try our nutritionally complete ManaBurger. It looks, cooks, and tastes like meat, only it’s 100% plant-based. And it doesn’t contain creatine!

 

   

Other advantages of the ManaBurger are that its nutritional profile is balanced, it’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and it’s lower in fat, thanks to which it browns more gradually. Defrosted ManaBurgers should be grilled for 3 minutes on each side until the surface is golden brown. They should be crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside. You don’t need any oil to cook them, and since they only take 6 minutes, the loss of vitamins and minerals is minimal!

Knowledge is power. We hope we didn’t scare you too much at the beginning of this article, but it’s really important to know what really happens to food when it’s cooked, as well as what the risks are and how to prevent them. We also believe that grilling is an essential part of summer. With a little skill and our practical advice, you can reduce risk to a minimum and enjoy it to the fullest. That’s worth your time, isn’t it?


Sources:

[1] R. J. Turesky, Loic Le Marchand (2011) Metabolism and Biomarkers of Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines in Molecular Epidemiology Studies: Lessons Learned from Aromatic Amines.
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx200135s

[2] ScienceDaily.com (2007) Brush On The Marinade, Hold Off The Cancerous Compounds.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070627124111.htm

[3] Dr. Simon Cotton (2016) Does burnt food give you cancer
https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/does-burnt-food-give-you-cancer.aspx

[4] R. M. Ibrahim, I. Nawar, M. I. Yousef, M. I. El-Sayed, A. Hassanein (2019) Protective Role of Natural Antioxidants Against the Formation and Harmful Effects of Acrylamide in Food.
https://scialert.net/fulltext/?doi=tasr.2019.41.55

[5] fda.gov (2019) Acrylamide Questions and Answers.
https://www.fda.gov/food/chemical-contaminants-food/acrylamide-questions-and-answers

[6] ScienceDaily.com (2008) To Block The Carcinogens, Add A Touch Of Rosemary When Grilling Meats.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080521184129.htm

[7] T. Green, S. Grossman (2019) Nutritionists Reveal 10 Surprising Ways to Reduce Carcinogens When You Grill.
https://www.foodnetwork.ca/bbq/blog/nutritionist-tips-reduce-carcinogens-when-you-grill/

[8] Klára Mudráková (2010) Heterocyclic amines.
https://is.muni.cz/th/s9wey/Heterocyklicke_aminy.pdf

[9] K. Jaya, D. Srijit, T. Seong Lin (2018) Dietary Acrylamide and the Risks of Developing Cancer: Facts to Ponder.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5835509/ 

[10] cancer.org. Acrylamide and Cancer Risk.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5835509/ 

[11] ScienceDaily.com (2017) Good news for grilling: Black pepper helps limit cancerous compounds in meat, study shows.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170516105047.htm

[12] Amanda J. Cross, Rashmi Sinha (2004) Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15199546/