How to Grill with Your Health in Mind

How to Grill with Your Health in Mind

By Karen Wang Diggs

Summer is here and we're all itching to be outside with our loved ones and resume some sense of normalcy. Barbecue, the great American cooking craft that we all adore and celebrate, will no doubt feature prominently at most outdoor events. It may also, unfortunately, cause cancer. Multiple studies have shown that carcinogenic compounds, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are produced when meats are grilled at high temperatures. 

Does that mean that we should BBQ no more??!! Or does it mean that you're doomed to get cancer if you simply can't give up your backyard grill? Fortunately, no, because our lacto-fermented foods come to the rescue!

What are HCAs and PAHs?

HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are produced when fat and juices drip onto an open flame when grilling meats. The PAHs are formed in the smoke, which then attach back onto the meat being cooked.

Both of these carcinogenic compounds have been linked to the onset of various types of cancer in laboratory animals. And while direct cause of cancers in humans is not conclusive, the National Cancer Research Institute has stated:

"...epidemiologic studies have used detailed questionnaires to examine participants’ meat consumption and meat cooking methods to estimate HCA and PAH exposures. Researchers found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer."

As mentioned, don't toss your barbie just yet! Read on...

How to minimize HCAs with fermented foods:

The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that when meats are marinated in a vinegar/acid- based marinade, HCAs drop dramatically. The key here was a thin, vinegar-based sauce—and leave out the sugar*.

In addition to using a mildly acidic marinade, the Hawaiian research team also found that certain herbs, such as basil, mint, rosemary, and thyme are also highly effective in reducing the carcinogens. The reason is that these herbs are rich in anti-oxidants.

So use the extra fermented brine from your Perfect Pickles or Classic Sauerkraut, which is acidic, to marinade meat before cooking. Even better, add in a sprig or two of fresh herbs. And boost your anti-carcinogen power by adding a good serving of sauerkraut to your BBQ meal.

Not a meat eater? You can also apply the same acidic marinade approach to tofu, tempeh, mushroom, squashes, pineapple, or any other plant-based foods that can be thrown on the grill.

*Warning: When the researchers tested thick, concentrated, commercial barbecue sauces (with added sugars), it actually tripled the number of HCAs! So, the obvious and most healthy way to marinade foods is to make your own sauce. May I suggest ChouAmi's very own Fermented BBQ Sauce that pairs really well with everything?

Tips on how to reduce PAHs:

  • Trim off excess fat
  • Cover the grill with punctured aluminum foil to minimize drips from hitting the hot coal
  • Grill items 6 inches (15 cm) away from the heat source
  • Keep a water squirt bottle handy to prevent flare-ups

Happy grilling!

Chief Fermentation Officer


McKenzie Hall, R.D, "Reduce your exposure to toxins from grilled meats," Chicago Tribune,
July 2, 2014.

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