Cookouts are a summer staple. And while they do provide some health perks—fresh air, home cooking and time with friends and family—they can also come with risks. Follow these guidelines to make your grilled meals better for you.
1. Grill like a pescatarian
Cooking most meat at temperatures above 300°F can produce potentially cancer-causing chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), according to the National Cancer Institute. But fruits and vegetables like corn, peaches, peppers, eggplant, pineapple, squash and watermelon hold up well on the barbecue and don’t form HCAs when they’re cooked. And though most types of fish produce HCAs when prepared at high temperatures, certain seafoods—including shrimp, scallops, oysters, crayfish and lobsters—don’t seem to form the compounds, says J. Scott Smith, a professor of food chemistry at Kansas State University.
2. Don’t overcook your entrée
In addition to being carcinogenic, some of the toxins produced by grilling meat may also increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. They do so by interfering with processes that regulate inflammation and insulin sensitivity, says Gang Liu, a postdoctoral nutrition researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whose research has linked high-heat cooking to an increased risk of the disease. To limit your exposure, “avoid cooking the meats until charred or very well done,” Liu says, and eat grilled foods in moderation.
3. Think beyond red meat
Studies have found that eating red meat may increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and early death. Processed meats— like sausage, bacon and hot dogs—seem to be even worse, increasing your risk of colorectal cancer and packing in salt and preservatives. When cooked at high temperatures, nitrite and nitrate preservatives may react with compounds naturally found in meat to trigger the formation of toxins called nitrosamines. Like HCAs, these are considered carcinogens. For these reasons, poultry, fish or plant-based proteins are smarter choices than red meat. But if you must, pick something minimally processed, like steak. Unprocessed red meat has plenty of iron, protein and B vitamins, so for most people, it’s fine to eat occasionally. Just think of a burger as a treat, rather than your go-to grillable.
4. Make a protective marinade
Slicking meat with a marinade made of oil, water, vinegar and antioxidant rich spices—like rosemary, oregano and thyme—for about 30 minutes prior to cooking can at least partially block HCA formation, Smith’s research has found. (Wrapping meat in aluminum foil before grilling may also cut down on HCAs.) Ground pepper appears to be effective too. In one study, Smith found that mixing a gram of it with 100 g of ground beef blocked the formation of HCAs. If that mixture tastes too strong, add in some herbs and garlic.
This appears in the June 04, 2018 issue of TIME.