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The Adverse Health Risks of Barbecue Grilling
As the grilling season nears its end, its time to reflect on all of the great meals and outdoor parties we enjoyed. One thing that you may not be thinking about is the health risks associated with eating all of that charred food. Grilling was once touted as one of the healthiest ways to prepare your food. And for the most part, this adage still holds true. What you may not be aware of though, is that some of the chemicals generated during the grilling process can be potentially hazardous to your health.
Before I dive into the discussion, let me first say that consuming grilled foods in typical amounts (following common cooking guidelines) will not likely contribute significantly to your risk of being diagnosed with cancer. As with anything, toxic levels of a substance or chemical can only be reached through two mechanisms: 1) chronic long term exposure or 2) short term exposure to a high dosage. The former of the two being more significant when the chemical or substance has properties that allow it to be bioaccumulated. Keep these items in mind as you read on.
The Cancer Culprit is Charring
Charring. That oh so flavorful crispy black crust that forms on grilled foods. Even though it makes the food appear appetizing, don't let this deceive you. Black charring is what you need to watch out for. The chemical composition of the food is literally changed as a hot flame chars it. When meat begins to burn, the amino acids, sugars, and creatine found in it begin to convert into heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds have been shown to be carcinogenic in experiments conducted by scientists at the National Cancer Center in Japan. Researchers have also linked the consumption of grilled meats with an increased risk of being diagnosed with certain types of cancers. Note that these chemical compounds can be formed by any cooking method that involves using high temperatures (e.g. pan frying).
Vegetables are also susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of grilling and charring. The sugars in them can be converted to PAHs when burned or cooked at a high temperature. However, these tasty treats lack amino acids and creatine, thus HCAs are not form in vegetables.
Given that 82% of US households have a grill, there are plenty of people that should be concerned about this. So what exactly can you do to prevent being overly exposed to these carcinogenic chemicals? The first thing you could do is simply to grill (and cook at high temperatures) less often. I know that's not what you wanted to hear (me included), but there are other options for prevention as well. Here is a brief list of some ways to reduce your exposure to HCAs and PAHs:
- Don't eat the charred portions of meat (this only prevents exposure to PAHs)
- Precook meats using a low temperature method prior to grilling
- Grill at lower temperatures
- Reduce your grilling time
- Eat meat prepared to medium or medium-rare instead of well done or medium-well
- Marinate your meats before cooking
- Eat less meat
- Wrap the meat in foil before grilling
- Swap meats for veggies instead
For the typical person who only grills about 1 time per week, the possibility of being exposed to high doses of these chemicals is already relatively low. However, people who grill often or regularly overcook or burn their food should now have some more reasons to change their cooking habits.
References and Resources
Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association (HPBA). Grilling Facts and Figures. 2009. <http://www.hpba.org/consumers/barbecue/grilling-facts-and-figures>
National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. 2011. <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cooked-meats>
National Public Radio. Summer Hazards: Sunburn and ... Barbecue? May 25, 2006. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5428963>