Is Barbecuing Hazardous to Your Health?
Barbecuing is a favorite past time for many people worldwide and can be traced back to the period of the caveman. Today, barbecuing has become a trendy affair and many will agree that grilled meat is very satisfying to our taste buds and it's an activity that coincides with summer vacations, beach parties, and all around good times. Nevertheless, recent attention in nutrition research has sparked a debate as to whether this tradition is actually a health hazard.
The first question on many minds is: Does barbecuing pose a risk for cancer? The reality is that when grilling meats (pork, poultry, beef, lamb, or fish), several carcinogens (cancer causing compounds), which are not present in raw meat, are formed during the barbecue process. In fact, these compounds form in the meat with other conventional cooking methods as well.
The most common group of carcinogens found in cooked meat are known as heterocyclic amines, HACs for short. The most important factors influencing HAC formation are temperature, time, cooking method, and type of food. Barbecuing, along with frying and broiling create the most HACs due to the high temperature used (over 150°C). Oven baking and roasting are done at significantly lower temperatures and thus, lower levels of HACs are present. Stewing, boiling, and poaching are done at even lower temperatures (below 100°C/212°F) and create virtually no HACs. The general rule is-the higher the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the greater the level of HAC formation. Other harmful compounds are also formed when the fat from the meat drips from the barbecue grill into the flames. The fumes released when this fat is burned are thought to contribute to lung and other respiratory problems.
The National Cancer Institute in Washington, DC reported that those who eat medium-well or well-done beef have more than three times the risk of developing stomach cancer as compared to individuals who enjoy their beef rare or medium-rare. Similarly, results from the Iowa Women's Health Study showed that women who ate meats very well-done demonstrated a risk of developing breast cancer that was 4.6 times greater than women who chose to eat their meat rare or medium-rare. However, ground meat products like hamburgers, as well as any chicken, lamb or pork product must be cooked well-done to destroy harmful bacteria. It is a good idea to remove the charred skin off chicken and fish as this is where the carcinogens collect. As well, when removing the skin, you are removing a large amount of fat.
The good news is that you can take measures to reduce the harmful compounds formed during a barbecue. First, it's a good idea to microwave meats for three minutes before barbecuing. This process will release a liquid from the meat that should be drained before putting the meat on the grill. When this liquid is removed, you can eliminate up to 95% of the harmful HACs. It's a good idea to do this with any type of cooking method. Second, use cooler burning hardwood charcoal instead of mesquite to reduce the cooking temperature. Third, place a drip pan under the grill to collect dripping fat, thus preventing it from falling on the flames and producing toxic fumes. Fourth, do no allow meat to become heavily charred as HACs collect in the blackened areas of the meat. Lastly, researchers in Japan believe that drinking darker colored beer may have a protective effect against carcinogens found in barbecued meats.
So, is barbecuing safe? or should everyone abandon this fun way to eat? Like anything else, moderation is the key for a healthy lifestyle. Health professionals agree that individuals, who consume large amounts of meat and barbecue regularly, are at a considerable risk for developing cancer. People who enjoy a barbecue 2 to 3 times a month have an insignificant risk for cancer and should not be concerned. My recommendations further include combining your barbecued meats with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as these foods are packed with antioxidants (food components with anti-cancer characteristics). Be adventurous in your side dish selection-this means try something other than potatoes, like zucchinis, melons, and quinoa. Whatever your selection turns out to be, enjoy your barbecuing.