With Memorial Day behind us, grilling season has officially commenced. But the debate over the healthfulness and eco-consciousness of grilling has been heating up for months. So in the spirit of one of my favorite summer activities, I devote this month’s column to a brief discussion of how to make grilling slightly greener.
I love a good, juicy, grass-fed hamburger, but I can’t ignore all the recent talk about the negative effects of meat production on the environment. A 2006 United Nations report, for example, stated that the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to global warming and greenhouse-gas emissions, beating out the combined contributions of planes, trains, and cars. And an article published in the Washington Post last month quoted food writer and activist Michael Pollan explaining that if we were to leave meat off our plates just one night a week, it would equal taking “30 to 40 million cars off the road for a year.”
From a pure health perspective, grilling with dry heat is one of the best cooking methods around. Grilled items are generally lighter on the fat content and lower on the calories. There is some concern around grilling and cancer risk from carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that can develop from the interaction of meat and high heat. Red meat, primarily beef and lamb, tends to pose the greatest threat; poultry and seafood follow behind. Thankfully, you can easily decrease any carcinogenic risk with a few simple steps: lower the heat of the grill and allow meat to cook a bit longer (the char on meat is what causes most cancer concern), cut meat into smaller pieces (think kebabs here), and flip meat frequently. Also, marinating the meat helps.
So, make a simple, light marinade; add fresh herbs or a spice rub; and you’re ready-set to fire.
But can you make your grill choices even better?
Consider making more responsible selections when you’re next at the grocery store or farmers’ market selecting something to grill. Red meat is the prime culprit when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions and land and energy use, producing four times as many emissions as chicken and fish, according to a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Try swapping that burger or steak once a week for a turkey burger, chicken sausages, pork chops, chicken thighs, shellfish, or a nice fillet of fish. Choosing a leaner cut of meat, poultry, or fish will promote heart health, low cholesterol, and a healthy weight.
Go veggie for an evening and grill up the best produce summer has to offer. A vegetable-based meal is a light and nutrient-rich alternative. As Thomas Jefferson once stated, “Meat is best used as a condiment to vegetables.” Pretty much any vegetable can go on the grill: eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash, mushrooms, sweet onions, corn, potatoes. Brush your favorite vegetables with extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt, pepper, and maybe a fresh herb or two, and toss them on the fire. You could even try grilling fruit, such as peaches and plums, for a light summertime dessert.
Marissa Lippert is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in New York City.