- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Before we know it, there’s going to be a health and nutrition caste system. The list of untouchables keeps growing. We think we’re eating healthy, cutting back on fats and calories and cooking more at home. Then something in the news blindsides us.

cooking more at home. Then something in the news blindsides us.

With summer here, it’s time for the usual cries of alarm about the cancer risk of barbecuing and grilling. Before you discard that grill and start deep-frying, let’s take a closer look at the primal art of live-fire cooking.

As a dietitian, I’m totally down on the grill. There are just too many positives and the few potential negatives can easily be rectified. To avoid grilling for health risks alone would be like shunning sushi solely because it’s raw. I like sushi and I like barbecue, and for both, the good far outweighs the bad. Among the advantages of grilling: It adds unique and intense flavor without fat.

The high and dry heat of the grill helps remove excess fat. How many foods can you say that about? Grilling and barbecuing (the first involves direct dry heat; the latter, indirect moderate to low heat and a lot of wood smoke) make extensive use of rubs, herbs and spices — all three intense providers of flavor without fat.

For most of us, barbecue means animal protein, but don’t stop there. Grill vegetables and starches. The high and dry heat caramelizes the plant sugars, making vegetables such as corn, asparagus, peppers and eggplant (my favorite) taste even sweeter than usual. You can also grill healthy, nutrient-rich greens, such as broccolini and kale. I like to brush them with a mixture of sesame oil and sea salt.

We’re a country of carnivores, but the same is not true of many other areas of the world where grilling means seafood, cheese, breads, soy products and even desserts. Fruits, such as peaches and sliced pineapple, make a healthy dessert either by themselves or over frozen yogurt.

Grilling is also fast. This is ideal for people who claim they have no time to cook, and there’s little cleanup. A few swipes of a stiff wire brush over the grate, before and after grilling, will ensure the grill is safe and ready for next time.

So what’s all this negative talk I’m hearing about barbecue? The issue centers on two groups of potentially problematic chemicals that are produced when you grill: heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic amines.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when muscle meats — beef, pork, fowl and fish — react with high temperatures for extended times until charred. Research by the National Cancer Institute found a connection between certain cancers in people who ate beef cooked medium-well to well done more than three times a week.

As a dietitian, I feel compelled to say that no one should be eating beef that often anyway, and as the stepdaughter of “Barbecue University” TV host Steven Raichlen, I feel equally compelled to state that there’s a difference between cooking and charring. Besides, cooking a gorgeous steak to medium-well or well is, in my opinion, a waste of good steak.

Polycyclic aromatic amines are compounds found in smoke generated when fat drips from meat, chicken skin or fatty fish onto hot coals. As the smoke rises, it deposits the amines back on the meat. These amines are actual carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).

First of all, you shouldn’t be eating chicken skin to begin with. (Remember me? I’m your dietitian.) One simple way to limit risk is to keep the food moving on the grill. If you get a flare up or a lot of smoke, simply move the chicken breast or fish fillet to another part of the grill.

My stepfather always says that one of the biggest mistakes people make when grilling is overcrowding the grate. He recommends leaving 30 to 40 percent of the grate food-free so you have room to maneuver if you get flare-ups. He also suggests leaving a safety zone (a part of your grill with no fire) so you have a place to move the food if it starts to burn.

So just how dangerous are these compounds and, for that matter, how dangerous is grilling?

To put this in perspective, Ed Blonz, who has a doctorate in nutrition and 25 years of experience in food and health, reports that eating 100 charcoal-grilled steaks will statistically increase your odds of dying by one in a million. So will rock climbing for 1.5 minutes, bike riding for 10 minutes and being a 60-year-old man for 20 minutes. I think the odds are OK. What do you think?

If you’re still worried, I have some tips to further reduce the risk:

m Don’t eat very well done meats. The longer meat is cooked at high temperatures, the greater the risk. Do cook the meat until done to avoid food-borne diseases. Pork should be cooked to at least 160 degrees, poultry to 170 degrees and burgers to 160 degrees.

{bullet} Keep the heat down to reduce the amount of charring. If it does char, cut off the burned parts.

{bullet} Don’t let the flames touch the meat.

{bullet} Grill fish on a cedar plank to prevent flare-ups.

{bullet} Eat low-fat meats (a given) like chicken breast and beef and pork tenderloin, and trim off as much excess fat as possible. And use low-fat marinades. The drippings from meat juice and fat results in flare-ups and smoke.

{bullet} Grill more fish. Fish generally contains less fat than meat and poultry. This generates less smoke. Fish also tends to need less time on the grill, also reducing exposure. (You’re supposed to be eating more fish than beef, anyway. Right?)

{bullet} Use indirect grilling (cook the food next to, not directly over the flames) to prevent flare-ups.

These tactics can help reduce risk when grilling muscle meats. But fruits and vegetables don’t contain the animal protein needed to make HCAs, so they don’t pose a risk … and yet another reason why vegetables and grains should be the main focus of a meal.

No matter how you prepare them, make sure you eat veggies with your barbecue, especially veggies and fruits high in antioxidants (broccoli, spinach, tomatoes). These foods are, after all, proven anti-carcinogens. Sort of like fighting fire with, well, fire.

I’m proud to say that everyone in my family is a barbecue fanatic. We don’t need the summer or a Sunday afternoon to light up the grill. Anything and everything goes. We eat lean, monitor our portions and always incorporate veggies.

Speaking as a dietitian, I say that before we put the kibosh on barbecuing, maybe we should stop smoking, avoid processed foods, lay off the Big Gulps and eat more locally grown fruits and vegetables and, of course, grains. Then and only then will I talk with you about how grilling may increase our risk of developing cancer.

Grilled eggplant

3 small eggplants

2 cloves of garlic, minced

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat grill to high. Cut eggplant in thirds lengthwise. Mix garlic and oil in a small bowl.

Brush mixture over cut sides of eggplant. When ready to cook, arrange eggplant slices on hot grate and grill until nicely browned, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Lightly brush top sides of eggplant with oil mixture. Turn eggplant with tongs and brush exposed tops with remaining oil.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking eggplant until flesh is soft, about 6 to 8 minutes more. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

80 calories, 1 gram protein, 6.5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol

Garlic shrimp, Cuban-style

5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1½ teaspoons coarse salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 cup sour orange juice or 3/4 cup fresh lime juice and 1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1½ pounds jumbo shrimp

Water

Lemon wedges

Oil for greasing grill

12 long (10- to 12-inch) skewers.

Place garlic, salt, cumin, oregano, pepper, and orange or lime and orange juice in a blender and blend to a smooth puree.

Peel and devein shrimp. Rinse with cold water and pat dry. Marinate shrimp for about 1 hour in orange juice mixture. After the hour, drain marinade off shrimp.

Thread shrimp onto skewer, inserting skewers near the head and tail ends so that shrimp look like the letter C. Thread lemon wedges onto skewers, alternating with shrimp.

When ready to cook, brush and oil grill grate. Grill shrimp until just cooked through, 1 to 3 minutes per side. When done, shrimp will turn pinkish white and be firm to the touch.

Makes 4 servings.

210 calories, 33 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 255 milligrams cholesterol

Betsy Klein is a dietitian and nutritional consultant in Miami. To contact her, go to www.betsykleinrd.com.

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