As summer heats up, so do backyard barbecue grills. According to a recent household survey of more than 2,500 people conducted by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the ConAgra Foundation, 85% of people grill regularly during the summer months—71% of whom are men. And although the fundamentals of grilling are relatively simple, outdoor chefs need to take care when cooking for the gang.

The Two Sides of Grilled Food

Good News

Grilled foods are usually considered healthy because they are cooked without fat. For instance, a typical 4-ounce (oz) chicken breast cooked on the grill contains about 9 grams (g) of fat, while a 4-oz serving of fast-food fried chicken contains about 17 g of fat.

Bad News

Although your waistline is better off with grilled cuisine, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) points out that grilling might increase the risk of various cancers. Cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are produced when animal protein is cooked at the high temperatures used in grilling and broiling. Other cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when meat fat drips onto hot coals. As food cooks on the grill, flames and smoke help deposit the PAHs onto the food.

What You Can Do to Be Safe

According to Melanie Polk, RD, MMSc, director of nutrition education at AICR, you can take precautions to minimize these problems. She suggests using lean cuts of meats, removing skin from poultry, and trimming fat from meat prior to grilling. Partially precooking meats in the microwave, and finishing the cooking on the grill is another way to keep foods safe and flavorful. However, ADA spokesperson Diane Quagliani, RD, cautions that it is necessary to grill the pre-cooked food immediately after microwaving in order to minimize the growth of bacteria.

Marinades May Help

Some studies have suggested that marinating meat prior to grilling can actually reduce the formation of HCAs. One study in particular noted a 15-fold decrease of HCAs in chicken that was marinated and then cooked for a 30-minute period. In addition to keeping your meat safe from cancer-causing compounds, marinades can tenderize and boost the flavor of meat while keeping it moist during grilling. But don't reuse your marinades. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA warns against this practice unless you boil the marinade first to destroy bacteria. Using fresh marinade for basting is even easier and eliminates the risk of bacterial contamination altogether.

Don't Let Bacteria Bite

If the mosquitoes don't get you, the food-borne bacteria can, unless you enforce the "rules of the kitchen." Food safety experts warn that safety precautions are necessary to prevent food-borne illnesses, which peak in the summer months. According to the FSIS, the hot and humid summer weather promotes faster growth of microorganisms. To keep bacterial contamination to a minimum, experts suggest the following:

Wash Hands and Surfaces Often

The ADA survey found only 44% of men washed their hands throughout the food preparation process while grilling.

Avoid Cross-contamination

The ADA survey noted that 40% of men will use a plate contaminated with raw meat and then re-use it for cooked meat. Use one cutting board for raw meats and a clean one for other foods in order to reduce bacteria crossover. Be sure to use separate plates, utensils, and platters for raw and cooked foods. For instance, if the raw steaks are carried out on a platter and tongs are used for placing them on the grill, you must use a new clean platter and tongs for taking the cooked steaks off the grill when they are done.

Keep the Temperatures Appropriate

Meats should be refrigerated while marinating and up to the point of being cooked. When the grilling starts, be sure the internal temperature of meats is appropriate to kill bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to check internal temperatures and don't rely on the appearance of the food. Using a meat thermometer will also improve taste by avoiding either under- or overcooking the meat. Leftovers should be refrigerated immediately if possible and should be tossed if left out more than one hour in very hot temperatures.

Safe Food Temperatures
Cold foodsLess than 40°F
Cooked whole poultry180°F
Cooked chicken breasts170°F
Cooked ground meat160°F
Cooked beef, veal, lamb roasts, and chops145°-170°F
All cuts of cooked pork160°-170°F

Be Careful With Beef

Ground beef is processed by cutting and mixing the meat from many different animals. If even one piece of meat is contaminated with bacteria, the contamination can spread during processing. If burgers are your choice, cook them to an internal temperature of 160°F and make sure the juice runs clear to avoid contamination with ]]>E-coli bacteria]]> .

Steak can be eaten pinker and rarer, because any E-coli on the surface will be destroyed when cooked. However, piercing the meat while it's raw can introduce bacteria from the outside of the meat to the inside. Therefore, if you prefer your steak pink, avoid piercing it with a fork while cooking. Using tongs or a spatula to turn foods will also minimize the amount of fat and juice that drips and causes flare-ups.

A Simple Meal on the Grill

With the grilling basics all nailed down, try this great meal cooked mostly on the grill in only one hour!

Marinated Flank Steak

Start with one to two pounds of flank steak marinated in a commercial marinade. Or, try your own marinade by mixing together the following ingredients:

Cooking oil1/3 cup
Soy sauce1/3 cup
Red wine vinegar1/3 cup
Lemon juice2 tablespoons
Worcestershire sauce1 tablespoon
Dry mustard1 teaspoon
Garlic2 cloves
Pepper1/4 teaspoon

Place the mixture in a large Ziploc bag, seal, and coat all sides of the meat. Place in refrigerator and marinate for at least one hour or overnight. Cook at least 5 minutes on each side or to degree of doneness desired. Cut steak diagonally across into thin slices before serving.

Corn on the Cob

Take silk (husk) off corn. Place corn cobs on a sheet of heavy foil. Top with several pats of butter and 3 tablespoons water. Wrap corn in foil and seal foil tightly at top to keep butter and moisture in while cooking. Heat on grill for at least 30 minutes or until tender.

Warm Garlic Bread

Take a loaf of Italian or French bread and slice at 1-inch intervals. Warm 1/8 cup butter and mix with 1/8 cup olive oil; mix with several cloves of minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon oregano, and 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Spread mixture on bread slices. Place loaf of bread on heavy foil and seal ends to keep in moisture. Heat for about 20 minutes.

Grilled Fruit Kabobs

Melted butter1/4 cup
Brown sugar2 tablespoons
Fresh lime for grated lime rind and lime juice1 fresh lime
Cinnamon1 teaspoon

Use any fresh fruit cut into one-inch pieces such as pineapple, apples, nectarines, melon, bananas, or large whole strawberries. In a small bowl, stir together melted butter or margarine, brown sugar, grated lime rind, lime juice, and cinnamon until sugar is dissolved. Thread fruit alternately onto metal skewers. Brush kabobs with butter or margarine mixture and place on barbecue grill. Grill for 6 to 8 minutes, turning frequently and brushing generously with butter mixture, until the fruit starts to brown and is heated through.