Grilling is a rite of summer, and nothing's easier than cooking and serving burgers outside. But the smoke and live flames that char-grill meats and give them such good flavor may cause significant health problems. When natural proteins and sugars in the meat interact while heated, they form toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Intense heat accelerates this action, making grilled, fried, and broiled meats and cheeses particularly AGE-abundant.
Research at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine has linked AGEs with cardiovascular and kidney disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. Additionally, the exterior of grilled meats contains heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both of which the United States Department of Health and Human Services has listed as potential causes of cancer.
Don't throw out your barbecue mitt and tongs yet. Consider grilled meats a treat, and eat them only occasionally.
One key to more healthful grilling is to reduce char-inducing flare-ups. Remove all visible fat from the meat you are grilling, and use thin cuts that won't need to cook a long time. Soak meat in an acidic marinade (containing vinegar or lemon juice) to keep the meat moist and prevent it from burning. The higher the heat, the greater the chances of charring your food; try grilling over indirect heat by piling coals to one side of the grill (or using burners on only one side of a gas grill) and cooking the meat on the cooler side. Using barbecue tongs to turn the meat will also help; puncturing it with a fork can cause juices to drip onto the hot coals or flames.
Don't want to give up outdoor cooking entirely? Try grilling vegetables and fruits, which don't form HCAs.