Considering my mantra of the importance of dodging unhealthy exposures, it wouldn’t take a psychic to guess that I try to avoid red meat. No mind-reading required here…and for many obvious reasons.
Most of us know that red meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and that the processed types (think hot dogs and salami) are also high in sodium, nitrates and other additives. Certain studies link too much red meat with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. A recent study out of Harvard posits a direct relationship: the risk of premature death – due to cancer and heart disease, for example – grows with increased consumption of red meat.
Less familiar to many though, is the fact that the act of cooking animal proteins releases toxic byproducts that contribute to disease and, hence, to meat’s much-maligned (and well-deserved so) reputation. Cooking meat – and even chicken and fish – at high temperatures causes the formation of HCAs (heterocyclic amines), and the smoke that attaches itself to these proteins on the grill is chockfull of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Both chemicals are suspected carcinogens and have been linked to diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer as well as adverse birth outcomes.
The last time I had red meat was, well ok, fine — a week ago. I was at a party and went with the mob mentality. (And the steak looked damn good — hey, I’m only human.) But before that it had been a long while since I’d tucked into a rib-eye and frankly (pun possibly intended), I really don’t miss the stuff.
Even though tides are turning and people are increasingly (yay!) choosing leaner protein sources, legumes and whole grains, red meat can be tempting and, as we’re still knee deep in summer, meat-based barbecues abound. I generally go for veggie burgers – as does my vegetarian hubby – but I know that for many, nothing short of a “real” burger will satisfy a growling belly.
If you fall into the camp of people who are strict omnivores – and certainly if you’ve got kids who request summer barbecues – there are many things you should do to make grill time as healthy as possible.
- Use an electric, propane or natural gas grill; they are safer than charcoal or wood grills. If you use charcoal, use sustainably produced charcoal (not charcoal made with petrochemicals)
- Choose the leanest and smallest cuts of meat and remove the skin before cooking. Fish is preferable, as it takes less time to cook
- Marinate food in lemon or vinegar based marinades; the acid will keep the chemical byproducts from sticking to the food
- Pre-cook food in the microwave (apologies to you hard-core chefs out there) and just finish up the cooking on the grill. This can cut carcinogens up to 90%
- Don’t keep food directly over the charcoals. As juices drip, the smoke rises, depositing the carcinogens directly into the food. Put some tinfoil in between (with small holes for dripping) or move the food off to the side
- Grill your food enough…but not too much. The well done, and certainly charred, parts of the meat contain the purest form of the carcinogens. This applies to frying and roasting as well
- Add some veggies and veggie burgers to the mix. They create few, if any, of these toxins and may actually mitigate the effects of the toxins that are present
So if you really can’t bear the thought of summer without a barbecued meat sandwich, at least take steps to make that sandwich a little cleaner. And consider dipping your toes into the veggie world. It’s a pretty fun summer in here too.