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Before firing up the grill, here are some healthy food options
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Before firing up the grill, here are some healthy food options

Grilling season is upon us, but before you can fire things up, though, it’s a good idea to give your gas grill a good cleaning. Buzz60’s Maria Mercedes Galuppo has more.

It's sweltering outside, and the last thing you want to do is heat up the oven and your house. It's time to fire up the grill and move your meals outside.

But this year, instead of reaching for your traditional burgers and steak tips, consider branching out and trying some more nutritious options at your summer cookouts.

Grilled meat, in particular red meat, has garnered some negative attention from nutritionists in recent years because, in addition to its less-than-stellar nutritional profile, it's been shown to generate potentially cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons when cooked on a grill.

If you grill occasionally, it's probably not an issue, says dietitian Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "But if you are grilling meat three or four days a week in the summer, particularly if you are eating red meat, I'd be more worried about that," she says.

Heterocyclic amines form when fat and protein in the meat reacts at high heat. These compounds also form indoors if you are cooking at high temperatures by frying or broiling. But the grill adds to the risk because when juices and fat from the meat drip onto the flames, the resulting smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are absorbed by the food, says Fung.

If you love to grill, reduce your exposure by choosing leaner alternatives. Grilled chicken isn't necessarily novel, but it is a healthier option than red meat. It has less fat than red meat, which means that even though it still produces carcinogenic compounds when exposed to high heat, there are fewer of them.

Grill your way to better health

Fish is another option to try. "It's a healthier protein with less saturated fat," says Fung. If you substitute fish for red meat, it can provide a boost to your diet and also has lower levels of troubling compounds.

Summer food safety tips

Food safety should be a priority in the summer months. When you are preparing food, aim both to avoid getting bacteria on your food and to prevent environmental conditions that will allow pathogens to grow, says Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

To prevent food-borne illnesses, take these steps when preparing food:

— Carefully wash food preparation surfaces and your hands.

— Avoid reusing cutting boards for different foods, such as vegetables and raw meat, unless you wash them in between.

— Grill only what you need, as you need it. Keep other uncooked items refrigerated or in a cooler with ice.

— Cook food thoroughly to the recommended temperature, which you can test using a meat thermometer.

— Refrigerate leftovers quickly.

— Don't place cooked meats back into a marinade or sauce that was used before cooking.

To keep cold foods, such as salads, at the right temperature, use a shallow pan and then place it on a cold surface. Deep pans make it difficult to keep the center layer of the food cold. Take particular caution with salads that include animal protein, such as chicken salad, or that have dressings containing eggs or mayonnaise, which provide an optimal environment for harmful bacteria to grow. Instead of a traditional mayonnaise-based macaroni salad, try a corn relish or a salad of corn, wild rice, and black beans, says Fung. These options are not only more nutritious, but also safer in the summer sun.

Look beyond the meat

A third option is to skip the meat entirely and opt instead for grilled vegetables, which are free of carcinogenic compounds after cooking. Try grilling some corn on the cob or a medley of root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes, says Fung. Root vegetables can withstand direct cooking on the grill grate, which makes them an easy option. But other veggies can be cooked sealed in an aluminum foil pouch with some olive oil and seasonings.

For a complete meal, try some strips of chicken breast along with some grilled corn or a vegetable salad, says Fung.

Tip: If you don't want to go without the red meat, marinate your steaks using an antioxidant-rich preparation. For example, add orange juice for extra vitamin C or herbs such as rosemary and thyme. The antioxidants help to reduce the number of harmful compounds generated through high-heat cooking. Another option to try is a marinade using antioxidant-rich crushed cranberries.

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