Are Pellet Grills Healthy?
There is no question that everyone enjoys a good grilled or smoked meal from time to time. There’s no comparison when it comes to the distinct flavor a pellet grill can bring to your steaks, burgers, and roasts. But are pellet grills healthy as a grilling option? While the results of preparing your meals in this way are undoubtedly tasty, a handful of studies have been published in recent years that suggest a link between consuming grilled or smoked meat and an increased risk of developing certain kinds of cancer, pancreatic being on top of the list.
While there’s truth to the risks to one’s health that is associated with eating grilled meat on a regular basis, steps can be taken to greatly reduce the risk of cancer and still be able to thoroughly and carelessly enjoy a grilled meal now and then.
How Exactly Do Grilling And Smoking Cause Cancer?
The first logical question we should ask is what exactly happens during the grilling or smoking process that increases the adverse effects meat prepared in these ways has on our health.
Since pellet grills are convenient and versatile in that they act as smokers as well, a distinction needs to be pointed out between the two processes. As cooking meat by grilling is different than doing so with smoke, so are the potential health hazards that result from these practices.
When Grilling Your Meat:
When grilling, the main culprit responsible for an increased cancer risk is animal fat. That means when the fat hits the fire and starts burning, a handful of harmful chemicals known as heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, are formed. These are then released into the air and permeate the meat above the fire, becoming lodged inside. Studies conducted on animals show that consuming these chemicals increases the chance of getting cancer.
The best way to avoid this is by avoiding flare-ups and over-charring your meat. Over charred meat not only taste bad, it is unhealthy and can be even more hazardous to your grill master reputation.
A great option to avoid flare-ups is using the revolutionary GrillGrates ™ for grilling and searing.
When Smoking Your Meat:
The risks of smoking your meat are associated more with the smoke itself than the food you’re preparing. Since the process is a great deal different than grilling and relies more on the use of indirect heat and cooler temperatures, the formation of heterocyclic amines, while present, isn’t that much of an issue. Rather, the wood smoke itself is the source of harmful chemicals, the same chemicals that add the pleasant smell of different kinds of wood to the meat. These polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are known carcinogens. They are present in a lot of processed foods to some degree, but their concentration has been shown to be considerably larger in home-cooked meals which were prepared using wood smoke.
Reducing The Effect Of Carcinogens While Using A Pellet Grill
While this might all sound like scary stuff, in theory, the truth of the matter is that these chemicals don’t pose much of a threat, if you’re exposed to them in small amounts. Enjoying a grilled burger once in a while will probably not increase the likelihood of cancer developing at all. Still, for the health conscious, as for those who can’t live without regular grill use, there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the meat’s exposure to carcinogens while sacrificing almost nothing in terms of taste and flavor.
The first thing you can do is also the tastiest—marinate your meat before grilling. Not only does marinade add a slew of different flavors to the meat, but it forms a protective barrier around it which harmful chemicals have a hard time penetrating.
If you aren’t a big fan of marinades, at least do your best to trim off most of the fat from the meat as this will reduce the forming of HCAs. Another tip in that vein is to replace fatty meats with lean ones. Grilled turkey or chicken are mouthwatering examples of lean meats, and are a healthier alternative. You can take it up another notch and not grill meat at all! Vegetables can be as tasty as meat if properly grilled, and can easily hold the same smoky flavor, making them worth considering if that is your number one reason for using a grill in the first place.
It’s also important to understand how to grill without overcooking or undercooking your meat. Researchers have also proven that overcooked meat significantly raises the risk of stomach cancer so just chalk that up as one more reason to use a meat probe to monitor the doneness of your meat.
What Else Can You Do To Reduce The Risks?
You can also do much to mitigate the risks by taking a more active and conscious role in cooking the meat. Simply put, this means that you should reduce the time spent cooking it, or decrease the grill’s temperature to avoid charring and sticking. Fish and sausages take a lot less time to prepare than beef and pork. It is understandable that you might not want to give up your favorite meat preference, so there’s a compromise you can make by using your oven or microwave to cook the meat until it’s about half-way done, transferring it onto the grill to finish up there. Or start by searing your meat on the grill first and finish it up in the oven. This practice has a similar effect as marinating since it closes off most pores in the meat before the meat comes into contact with smoke from the grill.
Lastly, if you are one of the folks that think never cleaning your grates adds “Extra Flavor” to your current cook, (seriously, these people are out there among you, my dad included) then think again. Make sure that the grill you are using is always clean before meat is placed on the grate. Leftover soot and burnt fat can have carcinogenic chemicals in them left over from last time, so getting rid of them by thoroughly cleaning everything is a must.
The main takeaway from all of this is that even though there’s evidence that suggests that grilling meat on a pellet grill can have something to do with the formation and development of a number of cancers, there simply isn’t overwhelming and conclusive proof yet that this is the case. After all, hominids have been preparing their food over open wood fires longer than humans have existed as a species, and we still seem to be doing pretty well for ourselves.
On the other hand, asking questions like are pellet grills healthy is a good way to reexamine our habits and adopt more health-conscious lifestyles. As was mentioned above, this doesn’t have to result in cutting out smoked and grilled foods altogether, but taking a more responsible approach to grilling can only be good in the long run, both for your health and as a means of increasing your repertoire of dishes you might not have considered grilling before.
Let me leave you with a wonderful quote from Meathead Goldwyn, on one of my favorite grilling sites AmazingRibs.
“Grilling is not bad for your health. But it appears that bad grilling may be bad for your health.”
That pretty much says it all.
For more on the science of cancer risks caused from grilling, check out AmazingRibs highly informative article here. You won’t regret it.
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