Mar 28, 2023

This Memorial Day, fire up the grill to get a taste of summer, not toxic chemicals

The sizzle of the grill – that's the sound of summer getting underway. This Memorial Day, plan a better barbecue to avoid a side of toxic chemicals.

What's on the menu? Steaks, burgers, hot dogs? Natural or organic? Or maybe a plant-based option? Whatever you’re serving, try to choose what's healthiest for you and the environment.

Plant-based and other protein

This might be the summer you kick off by trying plant-based meat.

Eating less animal protein is good for the environment. Agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, most of it methane from animals or nitrous oxide from animal feed production. Americans eat a lot of meat, and the amount we consume is rising.

There are more ways to eat less meat than ever. Offer guests some well-seasoned, marinated and grilled tofu. Or grill some plant-based hot dogs and burgers, some of which satisfy even committed carnivores.

Find meat alternatives that are good for you and the environment with EWG's Food Scores or Healthy Living app. These tools let you quickly scan labels in store and find other products free of food additives of concern. And watch out for misleading climate claims.

The only hitch: Plant-based meat, like all burgers, can have high levels of sodium. Once you sprinkle on a little salt or add salty condiments, you’ve really upped the sodium content. Some may also contain "flavor," the mystery concoction of artificial chemicals.

If you do choose to consume animal protein, fish and chicken have less impact on the environment than beef.

Burgers and hot dogs

It's a tough choice at many cookouts – whether to have a burger, a hot dog or neither. If you do want meat and your main consideration is health (rather than climate), opt for the burger, which probably has less sodium and fewer chemicals. Use EWG's Food Scores to find a better burger.

Frankfurters may be the quintessential cookout food, but some contain nitrate or nitrite, used to color and preserve the meat and give it a smoky flavor. And those can form nitrosamines, which cause cancer, in the human body. Hot dogs can also contain artificial food dye, like Red Dye No. 40.

Consider trying natural or organic beef or hot dogs. The Department of Agriculture defines "natural" foods as containing no artificial ingredients and with minimal processing. Natural hot dogs don't use synthetic nitrate or nitrite as their curing agent.

Organic meat goes a step further. Organic hot dogs are produced without synthetic nitrite preservatives, antibiotics or growth hormones. Both organic hot dogs and organic beef are more environmentally friendly than non-organic options because the animals are raised on vegetarian, organic feed grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Whatever animal protein you choose, study the ingredients carefully and avoid products that list sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites. And consume hot dogs as an occasional treat rather than a dietary mainstay. Check EWG's Food Scores or Healthy Living app to quickly find top-rated frankfurters.

… And everything else

Many other types of food can get thrown on the grill, like spring onions, red onion, bell pepper, eggplant, squash, portobello mushroom and corn on the cob. Some you may not have thought of:

You can even grill a full-size carrot – not a mini one – slowly over low heat. Dust with cumin and eat on a bun with some well-seasoned cabbage.

If you grill a protein, use EWG's quick tips for reducing your diet's climate footprint to choose something more climate-friendly than beef.

Watch what you put on your protein, too. Condiments can also be full of chemicals:

And for dessert, make sure to check out our article on food chemicals to avoid in ice cream and popsicles.

A few other things to remember for Memorial Day and throughout the summer:

To set the mood, play some suitable music – Spotify's Memorial Day playlist, or one you curate yourself. To add to the summer vibe, you could set up games like croquet or bocce, if you’re lucky enough to have a patch of lawn to play on. Or try your hand at throwing a glow-in-the-dark boomerang.

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