Healthy grilling intense on taste

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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?

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