Is BBQ Hazardous to Your Health? Top 10 Tips for a Safer and Healthier Grilling Experience

Healthy BBQ Salmon

The sizzle, the smoke, the tantalizing smell of meat over a flame … As Canadians we love to barbecue all year round (the country actually leads the world in online searches for recipes on how to barbecue chicken and ribs), but especially so in the summer as the weather warms. Barbecuing provokes a relaxed atmosphere and many summer gatherings with friends and family revolve around the grill.

However, increased barbecuing also means an increased risk of cancer – from the act of cooking food on the fire and from the processed red meat that commonly makes its way onto the grill.

BBQ Health Risks

There are two major chemicals you need to be aware of when it comes to barbecuing and cancer risk: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Both can be formed when meats are cooked at high temperatures (especially above 300◦F; frying and broiling can produce these compounds as well). These chemicals are mutagenic, which means they cause changes in our DNA that can increase our risk of cancer.

They form in slightly different ways: HCAs form when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHS form when the fats and juices from the meat drip onto the fire to create flames. These flames, containing the PAHs, then adhere to the surface of the meat.

Since the exact levels of HCAs and PAHs a person gets from cooked meats are difficult to measure, researchers have mostly relied on epidemiological studies using detailed questionnaires to examine participants’ meat consumption and cooking methods to estimate HCA and PAH exposures.

Research has found that increased consumption of barbecued meats is associated with an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, laryngeal and prostate cancer.

We know there is a link when these harmful compounds are ingested, but recent research is also exploring the potential risk from breathing in harmful compounds produced from barbeques. In addition to PAHs, BBQ charcoal has been identified as an important source of mercury emission, aromatic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbonyls (for example, formaldehyde) and other potentially toxic trace metals such as cadmium, cobalt and nickel.

In each of the studies researchers came to the same conclusion: “In light of the potential harm of grilling activities, proper regulation should be considered to control the use of BBQ charcoal from a toxicological viewpoint to help reduce the potential health risks associated with its use.”

People with respiratory conditions such as emphysema and asthma may be particularly sensitive to the air pollution created by barbecues.

Now, I realize that even after identifying these risks, it is unrealistic to cut out barbecuing completely from the average Canadian’s diet. However, there are several practical, simple steps you can take to reduce your health risks significantly.

Top Ten Tips to Reduce Your BBQ Health Risk

Here are ten tips you can put into action to reduce your risk and make your next barbeque not only a delicious experience, but a healthy one, too:

Tip #1: Avoid processed meat. Processed meats like sausages and hot dogs contain chemicals like nitrates associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Wild fish, organic chicken and grass-fed beef are better options.

Tip #2: Avoid exposing the meat directly to the open flame or hot metal surface. Consider wrapping foods in a foil packet to cut down on the amount of juices hitting the flame to create PAHs.

Tip #3: Cook at lower temperatures or reduce cooking times. Consider pre-cooking items in the oven or on the stove, for example, before barbecuing. Also consider elevating the grill rack to increase the distance between your food and the heat source.

Tip #4: Flip your food more. Continuously turning meat over a heat source can substantially reduce HCA formation compared to just leaving the meat on the grill without flipping it often. And while flipping take care not to poke the meat. Fewer pokes decrease the chance of juices dripping out and provoking the flames. The use of clamps or spatulas comes in handy to help keep the flavours inside.

Tip #5: Remove charred portions of the meat before eating. Yes, I know that’s the tastiest part! That will reduce both HCA and PAH exposure however.

Tip #6: Hold the gravy. Well, at least the gravy made from the barbecued meat drippings.

Tip #7: Soak your meats first. Marinating meats using a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic for example has been shown to cut HCA levels in chicken by 90%! Teriyaki sauce and turmeric-garlic sauce are also good choices. These marinade options change the acidity of the meat and prevent the PAHs from sticking. Forego the commercial barbecue sauces though – they have actually been shown to increase levels of HCAs in comparison to un-marinated meats, likely due to their higher sugar content.

Tip #8: Grill lots of veggies and fruits. Unlike meat, vegetables don’t create carcinogens when they char.

Tip #9: Clean your grill thoroughly before barbecuing. This will help remove any charred debris that may stick to food.

Tip #10: Opt for cleaner burning fuels. Organic, natural or “green” lump coal is a good alternative to briquettes. There is considerably less carbon monoxide and soot produced.  Charcoal is actually a restricted product in Canada under the Hazardous Products Act.

Bonus tip #1: Dome grills retain more of the heat produced by the fuel. More heat retained means less fuel is needed.  Solar powered grills are even available on the market now. Using a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid will also prevent you from inhaling harmful chemicals.

Bonus tip #2: Get your optimal servings of vegetables each day (at least 5 servings daily). Many vegetables contain glucosinolates which can inhibit HCAs. So remember to include a nice helping of veggies beside your skewer of meat.

Bonus tip #3: Spice it up. Use herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage to add flavour and reduce HCA formation.

Following the above tips, along with barbecuing in moderation (no more than a couple times per week) will significantly reduce your BBQ health risks.

Happy grilling!

Candice Esposito, aka Sault Naturopath, is a naturopathic doctor and director of Algoma Natural Healing Clinic located in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Candice helps people with chronic health conditions like depression, hormone imbalances, obesity and fatigue, overcome these concerns using gentle, effective natural therapies. Learn what is a naturopathic doctor and access other articles written by Dr. Esposito.


Canadians love to BBQ, Google stats show by Kevin Misener

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