Before getting fired up over your Memorial Day barbecue, take a moment to contemplate the capacity of your grill. It might be stainless steel and heat tolerant, but it may also be a conduit for cancer, E. coli, salmonella and unhealthy doses of sodium. Bottom line: barbecue chicken may be great for holiday get-togethers, but it's only healthy if you properly prepare and cook the meat, eat in moderation and have some fruits and vegetables on the side.
Outdoor grilling has been an American mainstay since pre-Civil War days. Southerners were accustomed to slow-cooking pulled pork in a savory sauce of vinegar, ketchup, water, salt and pepper. But that traditional combination of sweet and salty may have a price. Recent research shows that cooking meat at high temperatures could increase your risk of cancer. One Mount Sinai School of Medicine study, released in February, showed that higher heat, lower humidity and longer cooking times increased the number of carcinogenic agents, called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). "We've proven it in animal and research labs, and in humans we have strong suggestions," says Jaime Uribarri, lead writer of the study and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "But essentially it means avoid too much heat."
To be safe, saw off any charred pieces and wrap the grate in foil with holes, to minimize exposure to carcinogens. Use your kitchen to precook meat at lower temperatures and then finish the job on the grill. Limiting the fat content minimizes the plume of cancer-causing smoke, so peel off that chicken skin. "There are two main goals," says Colleen Doyle, registered dietitian and director of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the American Cancer Society. "One, you don't want to cook for a long time at high temperatures. Two, you want to avoid the exposure of meat to the smoke that comes back up."
On the other hand, undercooking chicken could put a serious damper on the party with salmonella or E. coli contamination, both of which can cause life-threatening sicknesses, diarrhea, vomiting, fever or abdominal pain. To strike the balance, buy a meat thermometer and be sure to cook whole poultry to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and chicken breasts to 170 degrees. Serve foods as soon as possible, and if you can't, keep the hot foods hotter than 140 degrees and the cool food colder than 40 degrees. "An easy tip is keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold," says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, registered dietitian and a American Dietetic Association spokesperson. "You want to avoid the temperature danger zone."
Nutritionally, chicken is a healthier choice over richer barbecue favorites, like ribs. Low in saturated fat, the poultry provides lean protein and an excellent source of zinc and vitamin B12. Go for the boneless, skinless chicken breast when possible, and eat fattier portions—such as wings—in moderation. "Yes, even I have had chicken wings before," says Jamieson-Petonic. "But I only have a couple and I have a salad with it."
And if you think meat is the condiment for the sauce, instead of the other way around, it is important to realize that many barbecue toppings are often devoid of any nutrition and packed with simple carbohydrates and salt. If you are concerned about breaking the recommended daily value of 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day, turn to light seasonings and herbs, such as lemon, lime and garlic. Jamieson-Petonic also suggests using garlic power and onion power instead of the salt forms.
Don't skimp on the veggies and fruits either. One study from the University of Carolina in Columbia observed that postmenopausal women who ate the most grilled, barbecued or smoked red meat over their lifetime increased their risk of breast cancer by 47 percent. Meat lovers who neglected their veggies increased their risk by 74 percent. "There is a lot of evidence that eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables reduces the cancer risk," Doyle says. "Let vegetables and fruits and grains that make up most of your plate. Make meat the side dish."