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To grill or to smoke: the essential summer question

IMG_9718Grilling cooks food by directly exposing food to a flame while smoking cooks foods by heating wood chips.  Smoldering wood chips produce smoke, which cooks food.


Obviously you know this – so, so what?  Well, the temperature difference between grilling and smoking has health implications.  Heating foods increases how easily your body absorbs some nutrients but destroys others.  For instance, lycopene is more easily absorbed when foods with lycopene are heated while temperatures above 188° F destroy vitamin C.  While salmon is ideally smoked around 150-160° F, burgers are grilled around 500° F.

On the other hand, smoking food usually takes a lot longer than grilling (time difference).  Since the rate at which vitamins are destroyed depends on both temperature and time, smoking is not the clear winner.


Char vs. Smoke: Bad news, everyone.  Studies indicate both are bad!  Charring creates compounds (Heterocyclic Amines or HCAs) that are associated with an increased risk of certain cancers – though on the plus side, vegetables never develop these compounds, even if they’re charred!  HCAs are formed at around 325° F.

At the same time, smoking generates a toxic chemical (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs).  When you stand around a smoker, you inhale that – and it damages your lungs.  The more your grill or smoker smokes, the more PAHs are generated.


Wow, now that I reread it, this post is really a downer.  My apologies – let’s end this on a high note!

What can you do to reduce any risks and still have tasty, delicious food?!

  1. Grill or smoke vegetables – they don’t develop as many harmful compounds
  2. Use marinades and rubs – certain herbs and spices (like rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic or pepper) add flavor and reduce the risk of carcinogens
  3. Choose lean cuts of meat – lean cuts produce less fat and the less fat drippings, the fewer PAHs are created
  4. Catch the drippings before they burn– same reason as #3 – reduced smoke inhalation
  5. Opt for short cooking time at high heat OR a longer cooking time at lower heat – it may preserve vitamins and reduce harmful toxins


Whatever you choose, enjoy your food and the summer grilling season!

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