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June 29, 2007 / Tony

Never let a dietician tell you how to cook

I can’t believe this article.  Written by a dietician named Susan Moore, it talks about the risk of creating carcinogens while grilling and gives some hints as to how to minimize that creation.  Apparently:

Cooking over high flames turns chemicals found naturally in muscle meats and fish into cancer-causing substances known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Both have been linked to an increased risk of several cancers, including colorectal, breast and prostate cancer.

The high heat component of grilling is what seems to be the problem.  Any cooking over 300 degrees Fahrenheit triggers the formation of HCAs and the accompanying flare-ups cause the PAHs.  But, since grilling is a low-fat method of cooking, this dietician recommends that you keep doing it even if “the same grill — whether gas or charcoal — that gives food its mouth-watering barbecue taste can also turn your burger into a toxic meal.” 

To do so, the following hints are given: marinate before grilling, turn, down the heat, use small pieces of meat, avoid overcooking, and pre-cook foods.  Some of these nuggets of advice are OK but when you actully read what she proposes, you can’t help but to be aghast.  Take this example:

Pre-cook foods. Microwaving meats for a couple of minutes before placing them on the grill can cut the effects of HCAs about 90 percent. The microwave draws liquid out of the meat, which in turn reduces flare-ups on the grill.

Unbelievable!  That’s what passes for cooking advice from a dietician!  You are to microwave (!!!!) food before the grill.  And the benefit for using that method is that liquids are drained out of the meat!  I can hardly think of a better way to suck all of the flavor and juiciness of a piece of meat than this method.  You also lose precious cooktime on the grill-so you get less browning and less of that grilled flavor.  Why even bother grilling after you abuse the meat like that?  Why not just microwave it all the way?

Other bad advice in the article is to flip meat frequently (the more you do this, the longer the cooking time and the more juices are lost from the meat), cook all meats to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (yes, yummy well-done filet mignon, just what every steak lover likes), keep the heat lower (again, longer cooking times, less juicy, and more than likely, none of that real nice Maillard reaction (browning) on the surface of the meat), and finally, an exhortation to really not eat meat at all since fruits and vegetables are so much better for you.  As far as grilling goes, this article stinks.

Which brings me to this thought: I think dieticians must think food is bad for you, or at least food is dangerous and must be “tamed” to be fit for consumption.  Hearken back to the writer’s admonition that grilling “can turn your burger into a toxic meal.”  Get it?  Food is not cooked to be enjoyed, it is to be cooked so it can be consumed safely.  Hence, we get an article like this; an article devoted to destroying everything that makes grilling such a wonderful cooking method in the spirit of “saving it.”  I think a former co-worker of mine put the role of dieticians best:  “They are there to take ice cream away from old men.”  Exactly, let’s take all the fun out of food so as to avoid any possible danger from it.  I pray that my diet is never controlled by one of them. 



Leave a Comment
  1. rebeccascritchfield / Jun 29 2007 1:54 pm

    Tony, I understand where you are coming from… microwaving meat just doesn’t sound right to me. Marinating, on the other hand, yum! I eat such small amounts of meat that when I do, I want it to taste good! My husband would also cringe at flipping the meat more than once. So, you are right. There is advice in here that really goes against the whole point of grilling.

    The science behind what she is saying is sound… and as the article says “is still being investigated”. The article also gave other suggestions (like marinating) that would help.

    I wouldn’t rule out all dietitians as credible cooking enthusiasts. There a many RDs who are also trained culinary professionals. We are in a network of the Food and Culinary Professional dietetic practice group.

    As a future RD, I’m disappointed in your view of dietitians and I hope you don’t let one article ruin it for the rest of us! I certainly would never take ice cream away from an old man.

    Rebecca Scritchfield

  2. Tony / Jun 29 2007 3:28 pm

    Thank you, Rebecca, for a thoughtful and insightful comment. I am pleased to learn that there are such groups as the Food and Culinary Professional dietetic practice group. I can only assume that such a group would take a much more sensible approach limiting the possible danger from food than the one taken in the article. It would seem to me that such a group of people would be trained both in the dietary and culinary aspects of food.

    What pained me most about this article was the extreme measures that were advocated without a real assessment of the danger. From my reading of the article, high-heat grilling methods were linked to an increased risk of many cancers. I’m no scientist but I understand the distinction between causation and a correlation. And the way I read the article, she is definitely talking about a correlation, not a cause and effect relationship. Thus, as far as I understand correlations, grilling may not cause cancer at all or at least, science has not proved that direct causal link.

    Nevertheless, the author had the hubris to effectively make grilling an absolutely despeciable cooking method. (I do admit that not all of her ideas were bad.) Perhaps I like my food too much but I’m not willing to make the sacrifices she advocated on the basis of the science she presented (and I realize that was not the point of the article).

    Anyway, I am heartened to hear of more sensible dieticians and have greater hope for the profession knowing that you will be part of it, Rebecca. And I am certainly glad for all future old men in your care.

  3. AYT / Jun 29 2007 5:23 pm

    In the words of the Arnold: “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”.

    Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are released when fat is burned on a heat source. PHAs are then transfer to the food surface via smoke. Hence the suggestion to avoid overcooking (less smoke billowing).

    One approach to alleviate PHA formation would be grilling on aluminum foil thus preventing fat from hitting the flame.

    Works well for fish anyways.


  1. A beautiful quote « Busy Nothings

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