Is it healthier to grill with gas or charcoal?

Grilling is easy and fun! Nothing marks the start of summer like the smoky smell from a backyard. Last weekend we went to a friend’s house for BBQ. They have a hybrid grill with gas burners on one side and room for charcoal on the other side. We were debating over whether we should use gas or charcoal and which one is a healthier option.

So is it healthier to grill with gas or charcoal? The way to go is to grill with gas whenever possible, because charcoal grilling may pose cancer risks and add to air pollution.

Sounds scary, right? But you may argue that charcoal gives you the perfect smoky flavor in food. And you don’t want to abandon your beloved charcoal grill yet. So what to do? Read on this post to uncover the myth of smoky flavor and some amazing tips for healthier grilling.

Why Charcoal Grilling Is Related To Cancer?

Studies have found that eating grilled meat or chicken may increase your risk of developing cancer. During the grilling process, cancer-causing substances called carcinogens may be formed. When charring, burning or grilling meat, poultry, and fish, there are two kinds of potentially carcinogenic compounds that form in the cooked food: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In laboratory experiments, HCAs and PAHs have been found to be mutagenic. In other words, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.

The amino acids, sugars, and creatine in meats react at high temperatures forming heterocyclic amines(HCAs). HCAs are not found in significant amounts in foods other than meat cooked at high temperatures. The hotter the temperature and the longer the meat cooks, the more HCAs are formed. HCAs can also form on broiled and pan-fried beef, pork, fowl, and fish. In fact, National Cancer Institute researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that result from cooking “muscle meats,” HCAs that may pose human cancer risks. Studies have also shown an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers associated with high intakes of well done, fried, or barbequed meats.

According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over a heated surface or open fire drip onto the charcoal. Charcoal burns hotter than gas and it creates a lot of smoke. Even though many people like the smoke flavor a charcoal grill provides, smoke is not a good thing when accompanied by PAHs, which can get deposited on the food you are cooking. PAHs can also form directly on the food as it is charred. PAHs can be found in other smoked foods, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.

Benefits of Gas Grilling

To achieve a healthy style of grilling, using gas over charcoal is a really smart decision. Besides the benefits of avoiding the cancer-causing carcinogens, gas grilling is more convenient, ready at any time, and easier to clean up.

To throw a quick BBQ party, you don’t have to wait for the charcoal ignites and heat up. When finish grilling, gas grills cool down much faster than their charcoal counterparts; and of course, cleanup is a breeze – no charcoal or ash to contend with. This also means that a gas grill will be ready to cover and put to bed after a cook much sooner—no more waiting in the dark for the grill to cool down!

Charcoal grilling often requires some skills to effectively manage the airflow and cooking temperature. While it may get easier once you get the hang of it, it does require more attention and effort than simply turning a knob. You have to build and bank and tend a fire. You have to pay close attention to where it is hot and where it is not. You have to concentrate and be ready to spend more time standing by the grill.

Gas grills are fueled by liquid propane stored in refillable tanks. Even though charcoal grills are less expensive than gas grills, the cost of charcoal will add up over the years. So in the long run, you’ll spend less using a gas grill than trying to run a charcoal one.

Safety is another benefit to gas. While charcoal is a safe cooking fuel, some homeowners’ associations or apartment complexes don’t allow charcoal grilling because of potential hazards from loose embers or ash. Working with charcoal requires attention and care at all times!

Finally, if you’ve never used charcoal it may be intimidating or a bit outside of your comfort zone. There’s no shame in that; plenty of people have never lit a pile of charcoal in their life. Don’t let the diehards shame you into something you’re not comfortable using.

Does Charcoal Grill Make Food More Tasteful?

Charcoal purists will tell you their preferred fuel leads to better flavor. So what really makes the smoky flavor on the meat? Is that the charcoal or something else?

Without any doubt, charcoal has one simple advantage over gas: It gets much hotter. Glowing coals are at a temperature of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit; while gas burns at around 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, there’s very little radiant heat from the flames, which is what’s really cooking your food on a grill.

At higher cooking temperature, when drippings from the meat hit the charcoal below, the oils, sugars, and proteins burst into smoke and flame. That heat creates new complex molecules that rise in the smoke and warm air to coat the food you’re grilling. So it’s pretty safe to say that the characteristic flavor of grilled food comes from the drippings, not the fuel. But remember, the smoky flavor comes with a price — cancer-causing chemicals such as HCAs and PAHs.

Healthy Grilling Tips For Charcoal Grilling

1. Use Herbs To Marinate Meats
Marinating doesn’t just improve the taste of the meats, it may actually ease your concern of HCAs. Marinades that contain thyme, sage, and garlic are a great way to cut down on carcinogen formation. It can actually reduce the amount of total HCAs by as much as 88 percent, One recent study showed that rosemary can even reduce HCAs up to 90 percent in some cases. Marinating with wine or beer is another great option, which can decrease the amount of carcinogens by 40 percent.

2. Control The Temperature
HCAs begin to form at 325 degrees F. You want to make sure all meat is properly cooked while the temperature does not exceed 325 degrees F. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the ideal temperature is met for different types of food.

Beef and Lamb

Rare: 130ºF
Medium-Rare: 130º to 140ºF
Medium: 140º to 155ºF
Medium-Well: 155º to 165ºF
Well: 170ºF and up

Pork

Medium: 140º to 155ºF
Medium-well: 155º to 165ºF
Well-Done: 175º to 185ºF

Grilled Chicken and Turkey

Dark meat (thigh, leg): 170º to 175ºF
White meat (breast, wing): 160º to 165ºF

Fish

Medium-rare: 120ºF
Medium: 135ºF

Burgers

160ºF

3. Grill Your Veggies
Eating more veggies is a golden rule for a healthy diet, especially for a meat-heavy barbecue dinner. Vegetables are naturally high in fiber and low in calories. Unlike grilled meat, vegetables don’t contain the amino acids which can form HCAs. It doesn’t take much creativity to cook vegetables. Whenever you’re grilling, just add a few peppers, zucchini, sweet corns or asparagus to the grill. How about some veggie kabobs? A green salad with light vinaigrette dressing is another nutrient-packed addition that is a favorite amongst many people.

4. Pick the perfect protein

As we all know, white meat is healthier than red meat, which usually has more saturated fat. Especially in grilling, fat and juices in meat will drip onto the charcoal, and cancer-causing chemicals like PAHs can coat the food with the smoke. However, if you choose leaner meat, such as skinless chicken breast and lean ground poultry, you will significantly reduce the amount of PAHs. The good fats in fish like salmon and trout actually have health benefits. When you use good tools and master the skill, your guests won’t even miss the red meat. Think of something creative, for example, wrap marinated fish fillets in foil, construct colorful chicken/vegetable kebabs, or make more savory turkey burgers by mixing minced portabella mushrooms and onions into the patties. If you do choose meat or pork, get “loin” or “round” cuts and “choice” or “select” grades of beef instead of “prime.”

5. Size Matters
Size matters in both ways. When it comes to cooking, you want to cube or slice meat into smaller portions to speed up the cooking time or choose a quick-cooking option like shrimp or fish. Because remember, the faster foods are cooked, the less likely they’ll develop dangerous charring. Another benefit of keeping meat size small is to keep your own diet on track. A healthy portion of any type of meat is about 3 ounces, and definitely no more than 6 ounces. If you think it won’t be enough to satisfy your stomach, just grill more veggies and fruits. Yes, fruits can be great on grills. The natural sugars caramelize in the high heat, giving them extra sweetness and flavor. Try sliced apple, pear or pineapple or halved bananas, figs, nectarines, peaches or plums. You’ll have a more colorful plate that you’ll enjoy guilt-free!

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