There are few things more satisfying than cooking over a grill with an open flame. We get to enjoy being outside, take in the unique smoky flavors that only grilling provides, and most likely hang out with our friends. However, when it comes to grilling, you have two choices: gas or charcoal. You might be wondering which is the healthier option? Unfortunately for the charcoal fans out there, gas appears to be the hands-down healthier option. Don't give up hope, though, there are a few ways to make charcoal grilling healthier.
It’s good to get a complete picture if you haven’t already chosen between gas and charcoal. Here are a few pros and cons to help you choose.
For those who simply want the healthier option, you should choose gas. We’ll get into how to make charcoal grilling healthier below, but it’s important to first understand why charcoal is the less healthy option. When you cook on a charcoal grill, it releases two types of molecules into your meats and veggies: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). How does that happen? When the fat drips down into the fire, the HCAs and PAHs bind to the smoke and fuse into your meat.
What is so bad about HCAs and PAHs? Well, they are known to increase your risk for cancer. Supporting studies have been conducted in well-known circles in the scientific community, such as the American Journal of Epidemiology. These PAHs and HCAs have been linked to skin, lung, prostate, rectal, breast, and pancreatic cancer cells.
Keep in mind though that as with any other behavior, these risks are cumulative over one’s lifetime. Eating a couple of meals cooked over charcoal in and of itself won’t cause cancer overnight and it’s worth mentioning that you’re still avoiding the added fats that would be used to fry, or saute your food.
According to the American Cancer Association, "meat that has been fried and/or charcoal-grilled at a very high temperature can produce carcinogenic substances (heterocyclic amines)." You should avoid charring meat for prolonged periods. When the fats drip on the coals, harmful cancer-causing chemical infused smoke is released, coating your food in PAHs. If you don't think that these chemicals are dangerous, consider that PAHs are also found in cigarette smoke.
If you run to the store to get charcoal, you’re most likely bringing home charcoal briquettes. These are the uniform nuggets that produce a long-burning and relatively even heat. They’re also usually the cheaper option for many outdoor grillers. While many enjoy charcoal grilling because it seems more “natural”, charcoal briquettes are a less natural type of charcoal as they’re packed with wood and filled with binders.
Hardwood lump coal is another option, and is said to have an even richer flavor. These coals are made by slowly burning wood in an oxygen-free environment until it’s natural moisture is removed. On the grill, they burn hotter and faster than briquettes so you need to be more careful when using them to ensure your food is cooked evenly and thoroughly. Luckily, they respond quickly to changes in oxygen levels, so if your grill has vents, you have a lot of ability to manage their temperature.
You can even find hardwood lump coals with added flavor like applewood, pecan, and mesquite. While both types of charcoal carry the same health risks, these coals won’t have fillers and binding agents and as a result the more natural choice.
If you’re committed to charcoal, there are a few things to consider doing to make grilling healthier.
Some studies have suggested that steaks marinated in oil, water, spices, or vinegar contain fewer HCAs than non-marinated meats. In fact, rosemary can block the formation of PAHs and HCAs. Best yet, it’s delicious!
PAHs and HCAs are mainly released by meat fat melting and dripping onto the coals. As a result, choosing leaner cuts of meat, such as fish or chicken breast, will help you to reduce the amount of PAHs and HCAs that are released and subsequently coat your food.
Choose smaller cuts of meat or even make skewers. Larger cuts of meat spend more time on the grill so naturally smaller cuts carry less health risk. Best yet, everyone gets to eat sooner!
Vegetables don’t have the fat that causes PAHs and HCAs to be released. They’re also packed with tons of important nutrients like vitamins, and fiber. For the best flavor and quality, buy vegetables locally and seasonally when you can.
Higher heat will not cook your meat faster. It will most likely just result in charred food. This charing is referred to as the maillard reaction which results in the production of a carcinogenic substance known as acrylamide. You want to maintain a low to medium heat of around 300 degrees for a healthier meal.
Charring might taste good, and many chefs warn against frequent flipping for “maximum flavor.” However, this is the best way to let your food cook thoroughly and evenly while minimizing charing and its resulting carcinogens.
As we decide what kind of grill to use for our summer cookouts, it’s clear that gas is the healthier choice. But for those who are committed to charcoal, there are plenty of things you can do to make grilling healthier.
Gas or Charcoal: Which did you choose? Let us know why below!
The Best in Nature blog is for informational purposes only and is not to be used as medical advice.