13 Grilling Mistakes That Could Make You Sick
As beloved as a summer cookout may be, it also hides some health hazards. Here’s what you need to know before you fire up the grill.
Mistake: You skipped the marinade
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that grillers marinate all meat, including beef and chicken, for at least 30 minutes in the fridge before cooking. “It’ll create a protective barrier on the outside of the meat that prevents flames from causing carcinogens,” says Julie Lanford, RD, the wellness director at Cancer Services in Winston-Salem, NC. Specifically, a mix of vinegar, lemon juice, or wine—plus various herbs and spices—decreases the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These potentially cancer-causing chemicals form when the proteins in meat are exposed to high temperatures. If pork is on the menu, consider marinating it for four hours in a dark lager or a pilsner. This’ll reduce the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are similar to HCAs, according to research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
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Mistake: You defrosted the burgers on the counter
The slow, room-temperature thaw is a sure-fire way to encourage the growth of dangerous bacteria, according to the USDA. Instead, thaw meat and fish in your refrigerator. And keep in mind that a pound of ground meat will need at least a full day in the fridge to properly thaw. If you need it sooner, tightly seal the frozen meat in a plastic bag and submerge it in cold water; change out the water every half hour until the meat is ready to grill.
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Mistake: You cleaned your grill with a wire-bristle brush
Of course, you need to regularly clean your grill—but don’t use a wire-bristle brush. A 2016 study found that these brushes resulted in more than 1,600 emergency room visits since 2002. Researchers found that loose bristles can fall off during cleaning and wind up in the food you’re grilling, leading to painful injuries to the mouth, throat, and tonsils.
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Mistake: You went the well-done route
People who prefer their meat, poultry, or fish cooked well-done have a 15 per cent increased risk of high blood pressure compared to those who opt for medium or medium-rare, according to Harvard researchers. It’s thought that the chemicals produced by cooking meats at high temperatures over an extended period of time increase oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance, all of which can up one’s chance of developing hypertension.
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Mistake: You didn’t swap utensils
“If you place raw meat on the grill using one set of tongs or a spatula, you need to either wash it properly or get a clean utensil to take the cooked meat off when it’s done,” warns Emily Forauer with the American non-profit Stop Foodborne Illness. If you don’t, you could transfer bacteria from the pre-cooked meat. Be sure to follow the same rules for cutting boards and plates: If they held raw meat, they need to be washed before you re-use them.
Mistake: You nixed the pepper
As any grill master knows, sometimes a dry rub is better than a marinade—and you sidestep HCAs this way. Researchers at Kansas State University found that sprinkling black pepper and other antioxidant-rich spices like rosemary, thyme, and oregano on raw steak—or blending them into burger meat—before grilling can eliminate almost all HCAs.
Mistake: You didn’t flip your burgers enough
Keep your spatula active, say the experts at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center in Sacramento. They recommend flipping your hamburger patties once every minute until the meat is cooked. This constant turning raises the meat’s internal temperature gradually, which reduces HCA formation by up to 100 per cent. And move the patties around the grill while you’re at it: “When all the fat drips in one place, it can cause a fire flare-up,” says Lanford. “When the flame touches meat, you create an environment ripe for dangerous substances to form.”
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Mistake: You’re not using a meat thermometer
“Looking for the pink to disappear is not the best way to determine if your meat is cooked,” says Forauer. “About one in four hamburgers turn brown before they’re ready to eat.” And you don’t want to consume under-cooked meat, which can contain bacteria like salmonella or E. coli that can lead to foodborne illnesses. The only way to truly tell if your food’s done is with a meat thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat—and test other areas—to check if your meat has reached a safe internal temperature (SIT).
Mistake: You skipped this pre-grill step
Briefly pre-cooking meat prior to grilling can reduce levels of potentially cancer-causing HCAs: “By microwaving, boiling, or baking your meat a bit before putting it on the grill, you reduce the amount of time your food needs to be on the grill. The less time it’s exposed to heat and flame, the fewer potential carcinogens form,” says Lanford. According to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, pre-cooking a hamburger for a few minutes in the microwave removes up to 95 per cent of HCAs. An important caveat: If the BBQ in question is at a friend’s house or in the park, never partially cook your meat at home, pack it up, and finish grilling it at your destination. Half-cooked meat is a breeding ground for bacterial growth.
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Mistake: You’re basting with your marinade
Any bacteria taking up residence on your marinating steak, chicken, or fish has the potential to replicate and contaminate the marinade. “If you want to baste with your marinade, set some aside to use before marinating the meat,” says Forauer. “Leftover marinade has lingering raw meat juices and that’ll re-contaminate your almost-finished cooked food with bacteria.”
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Mistake: You’re eating too late
You know the saying “get it while it’s hot?” It can help you avoid food poisoning. When the air temp is 32°C or higher, perishable foods (like burgers and chicken wings) need to be eaten within one hour of being cooked; cooler than 32°C extends the safety window to two hours. “Any bacteria that are present will begin to multiply and can double in as little as 20 minutes,” says Forauer.
Mistake: You didn’t trim the fat
You know that regularly eating fat-laden beef, lamb, pork, and/or skin-on poultry raises your cholesterol, which then may increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other deadly conditions. But grilling fatty meats raises another concern: “The fat on grilled food provokes charring, which helps to create HCAs,” says Lanford. “Plus, trimmed, thinner cuts will cook quicker, which will reduce the time of exposure to HCAs, too.”
Mistake: You washed the chicken—but not your hands
Each and every time you touch raw meat, you must wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds, according to the CDC. This helps to avoid the spread of Salmonella and other diarrhea-causing bacteria. Also, don’t think that washing your raw chicken or other meat will remove bacteria—just the opposite: running water over meat spreads the bacteria to your sink, the air, and to you.
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