Flavor isn't the only way these grilling methods differ. 

By Gillie Houston
June 06, 2019
Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

There’s no better way to ring in summer than with a hot grill filled with all of the burgers, ribs, and hot dogs you can handle. When it comes to grilling, there are two camps: charcoal people and gas people. Although each home cook has their own opinion on the best method in terms of flavor, ease of use, and practicality, there’s another big category that’s murkier to the average burger-flipper: health. So, which of these two methods of grilling is the better bet for avoiding potential health problems down the line?

Related: 11 Essential Grilling Tools You Can Use All Summer Long

Charcoal Grilling

Charcoal tends to reign supreme when it comes to flavor, imbuing foods with the unmistakable smoky taste that has become a hallmark of summer. Charcoal grills also result in a crispiness and char that is hard to recreate with a gas grill. These grills also tend to be more portable, easy to haul to a beach cookout or BBQ in the park.

However, health-wise charcoal is lacking. This sad news for charcoal fans is due to two molecules: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When meat is cooked over charcoal, the fat from your burgers and brats drips onto the open flame, which causes a molecular transformation. This fat is turned into PAHs, which are then infused into the meat via the smoke from the grill. As the meat is charred, HCAs also develop in the meat on a molecular level.

Unfortunately for smoky BBQ fans everywhere, these molecules have been found to increase the risk of a variety of cancers, including lung, breast, skin, colon, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. These findings have been confirmed by scientific organizations like the National Cancer Institute and the American Journal of Epidemiology, Genes, and Environment in multiple studies linking this form of grilling to cancer.

In addition to HCAs and PAHs, burning charcoal also creates another form of harmful carcinogen, nitrogen-PAHs, which can also add to the risk of developing cancer. As a whole, charcoal releases a variety of chemicals, which are best avoided.

Watch: How to Make Grilled Garlic Knot Pizza Rolls

 

Gas Grilling

When it comes to health, a propane gas grill is the winner. While gas grills won’t create that trademark charcoal char, they can still cook meats to browned perfection without producing some of the chemicals released by burning charcoal. Other benefits of cooking with a gas grill are minimal cleanup and maintenance, reduced risk of starting a larger fire, and a smaller environmental impact than burning charcoal.

Unfortunately, gas grills aren’t completely off the hook for potential toxicity. As HCAs and PAHs are created by flame, open-flame gas grills can still create these potentially harmful molecules. One way to reduce the amount of PAHs consumed is to scrape some of the char off of the outside of meats, which will help to reduce PAHs. Another way is to trim the fat before grilling, which will result in less drippings and reduce the amount of this molecule created.

To reduce the amount of HCAs, it has been found that marinating the meat in a mixture that includes lemon juice or vinegar can reduce the HCA count by 90 percent. Flipping the meat frequently can also reduce the amount of carcinogens.

The good news is the health risks posed by the consumption of char isn’t devastating, and eating grilled meats a couple times a week in the summer isn’t likely to do much damage. To reduce the risk as much as possible stick to the gas grill, which is easier to manage and doesn’t unleash a slew of toxins.

Check out more answers to your Top Grilling Questions and some epic Grilled Recipes to kick off your outdoor festivities.

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