The People's Perspective on Medicine

How to Grill Safely This Summer

Grill safely this summer by paying attention to how you clean the grill as well as marinating, pre-cooking and flipping your meat frequently.
People enjoying a barbecue outside

In the summer, the great American pastime is the cookout. From burgers and corn on the cob to s’mores, cooking food over the fire or on a grill has enormous appeal. But public health experts have identified some hazards associated with outdoor cooking. Is there a way you can grill safely?

To Grill Safely, Clean the Grill Properly:

Q. You have written about the dangers of wire brush bristles getting into grilled food. Is there a way to clean off the backyard barbecue grill that avoids that problem?

A. Emergency physicians have reported injuries when people inadvertently swallow wire bristles trapped in their grilled food (Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, April 2016). Using a wire brush to clean the grill can create a problem that may be quite serious (Annals of Otology, Rhinology, and Laryngology, Oct. 2018). The bristle may lodge in the throat and require surgery to remove it.

Such brushes should be replaced at least every two years. Readers have other suggestions for cleaning the grill, such as wiping it down with a damp paper towel or using a nylon scrubber. Others use a brush with metal coils rather than bristles or nylon bristles rather than metal ones. One person recommended sliding an onion over the hot grill to clean it.

Wire bristles are not the only health hazard that lurks at the barbecue. Epidemiologists have found that people who frequently eat grilled meat are at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes. 

The Story on Grilled Meat and Diabetes:

The long-running Nurses’ Health Study collected detailed dietary data on nearly 60,000 women every few years between 1986 and 2012. The investigators also compile complete health information on every participant, yielding 1.24 million person-years of data.

More than 6,000 women were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes during the study (Liu et al, Diabetes Care, online June 13, 2017). The scientists found that women who ate red meat that was barbecued or broiled two or more times a week had a significantly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate it less than once a month.

Their risk was 29 percent higher if they ate barbecued meat compared to women who rarely indulged in such food. Those who frequently ate broiled meat had a 23 percent higher risk of diabetes. Eating meats that were stewed or boiled did not seem to carry the same risk.

Does Grilled Meat Contribute to Weight Gain?

The researchers found that women who ate grilled meat frequently were also more likely to gain weight, which might contribute to the risk of diabetes. They did not explain this connection, however. Might it be that meals containing barbecued burgers or steak also have lots of fattening extras? To grill safely, keep meat consumption moderate, and remember that vegetables are also an important part of every meal.

Grill Safely with the Three Ms:

Another significant concern is the development of carcinogenic chemicals in meat exposed to very high heat such as on a grill. We received this question several years ago, and responded with our recommendations for safe grilling practices.

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Q. Our family is big into grilling, even the kids. Our son loves to cook burgers or chicken and my husband is noted for his spare ribs.
Last week my sister and her family were over and when we fired up the grill there was a look of horror on her face. She says charbroiled meat causes cancer. I have a hard time imagining this. What’s the story?

A. Your sister isn’t wrong. Cooking meat on a grill can create carcinogenic chemicals. But that does not mean you have to give up the barbecue.

For safer grilling, use the three Ms-marinate, microwave and manipulate the meat. Marinating the meat can reduce the surface temperature during cooking. High heat contributes to the formation of carcinogens.

Turning meat frequently also keeps surface temperature lower, but allows the interior to cook thoroughly. Defrosting or pre-cooking the meat in the microwave reduces the amount of potentially cancer-causing chemicals formed on the grill.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Show 949: Summertime Remedies for Safe Grilling and Easing Bites, Burns, Stings and Scratches
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Is your grill safe? Get remedies for keeping cookouts healthy and easing bites, burns and stings.

Show 949: Summertime Remedies for Safe Grilling and Easing Bites, Burns, Stings and Scratches
  • Baugh TP et al, "Epidemiology of wire-bristle grill brush injury in the United States, 2002-2014." Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, April 2016. DOI: 10.1177/0194599815627794
  • Mortensen M et al, "Grill-cleaning wire brush bristle ingestion: Case series and review of the literature." Annals of Otology, Rhinology, and Laryngology, Oct. 2018. DOI: 10.1177/0003489418789178
  • Liu G et al, "Cooking methods for red meats and risk of type 2 diabetes: A prospective study of U.S. women." Diabetes Care, June 2017.
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Never had a problem with a wire brush to clean a grill, but aluminum foil, rolled into a ball, works pretty well!

The most effective, fast and easiest way to clean grill grates is to line the top of the grates with a sheet of aluminum foil, turn the burners on high, and leave on for 10 minutes more. Let cool off, of course, before removing/touching the foil. All grease and food and other debris will have been converted to a white powder residue, easily brushed off with a plain bristle brush. Or washed off with water after taking the grates off the grill itself. No need to use wire brush.

Regarding wire bristles left over when cleaning a grill, I guarantee you will have the cleanest grill grates ever by laying down a sheet of aluminum foil over the grates, turning on burners to high, and let it go for 10 minutes. The heat will pulverize the drippings and the grate will be totally cleaned. Just let the foil cool for a few minutes before taking it off the grates. It will be hot.

We have several rental properties where grills are constantly used. To assure the grill is clean for the next renters coming in I do use a wire brush with a scraper component. After using both to get off any food clinging to the grate I fire up the grill and heat it on high for at least ten minutes with the lid closed. I then spray it lightly with water which creates very hot steam and also rinses any wire bits away. I leave the fire on for a few more minutes and then check it to make sure it is clean for the next renters. Be sure to then empty the grease trap.

In life you take risks, measured risks. Eating grilled meat is one of those.

why would you put meat you will grill, in the microwave after marinating it, before you grill?

Research has shown that this process reduces the amount of heterocyclic amines produced in grilling.

Spot on with the three Ms: Marinate Microwave and Manipulate . I started precooking using Microwave with Chicken first since it needed complete cooking internally yet if it stayed on grill it meant the outer layer be charred and increase cancer causing agents plus the chicken would be dry even tasteless . Foil wrapping had some success but simpler was the precook in Microwave . This had me also do other meats using Microwave and I am very pleased with results. I have been able to BBQ fish using wood as fuel which shows my dedication to the cooking process. Fish is the most fragile of food items to grill ..If Grilling where no electricity is available then alternative to Microwave is boiled water to preheat the chicken and dampened steaks wrapped in foil can be tried as well . With Steaks nothing worse than shoe leather taste and texture. Grilling is a art and 55 years I am still learning.

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