What’s the Healthiest Type of Grill?

Summer is grilling season in Michigan. Everyone seems to have a favorite type of grill for outdoor cooking. There are lots of options, whether you are a fan of searing burgers over hot coals, firing up the gas grill or feeding your favorite type of woodchips into a smoker for a low, slow cook. There are also health differences. Each type of grilling method has its own pros and cons in terms of how healthy the specific cooking method is.  

At its very base level, cooking meat over an open heat source is one of humans’ oldest methods of preparing meals. It remains hugely popular, with 68% of people in the United States saying they don’t need a special occasion or holiday to cook on the grill, according to data shared by Statista. All this interest means there now are a lot of new and tech-savvy items associated with the grilling industry, pushing it to top $2.7 billion in sales in 2021. Whether you connect with your cooking muse over a bag of charcoal or by lighting the gas grill on your deck, let’s break down the health takeaways from each style of grilling.  

First, you should know that the act of grilling has some inherent health risks, no matter which kind of grill you cook with, according to Healthline. Cancer-causing compounds can be formed any time:  

  • Meat is grilled quickly over a very high temperature.
  • Meat is charred to create a blackened crust.
  • Meat smoke clings to the outside of a piece of meat, after fat from the cooking food drips down onto a hot piece of the grill.

Most of these conditions occur when any type of muscle meat is grilled, which includes beef, pork, chicken, fish and lamb. These types of meat account for the majority of what’s being cooked on grills. 

Charcoal or ceramic grills. Nearly 50% of all grill users own a charcoal grill. It’s considered an old-school method that gives meat a particular taste. For some grill users, nothing beats creating a pile of briquettes or lump charcoal, lighting it on fire, then waiting for the burning coals to turn red hot. Newer on the market are the enclosed ceramic grills, which also use charcoal. These lumps of charcoal are exactly where the health risks start with charcoal grills, according to Healthline. These risks include: 

  • HCAs: Cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are created when meat is grilled at a very high temperature. The amino acids and creatine in meat react in high heat, causing a charred appearance. HCAs are carcinogens.  
  • PAHs: Another carcinogen is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or the fat-laden smoke that rises when grilling meats. When fat and juice drip onto hot coals or a hot part of the grill, PAH is in the smoke that then rises up to coat the meat. When people eat this PAH-coated meat, it can cause unhealthy changes in their DNA. 

There are ways to make your charcoal grilling experience healthier. Some things to try: 

  • Marinate your meat for a half hour before putting it on the grill. This cuts down on the formation of HCAs.
  • Grill over a lower heat.
  • Don’t char your meat.
  • Take your food off the grill as soon as it’s ready to cut down on the cook time.

Gas grills. This type of grill is the big winner when it comes to American consumers. A 2020 survey by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association showed that among U.S. grill owners, 61% owned at least one gas grill. And that is a big plus, because research has shown that grilling with gas is thought to be safer than grilling over charcoal, according to Healthline. There is less smoke and heat with gas grilling – two things that can spur the creation of those cancer-causing compounds. While no grilling is free of all health risks, they are lower with gas grills.

Smokers. People who make smoked meats – including chicken, ribs, fish, sausage or brisket – may be using the unhealthiest cooking method, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Long, slow cooking times in an enclosed smoker can subject meat to an even higher level of PAHs and HCAs.

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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