Top Tips for a Healthy Barbecue
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Top Tips for a Healthy Barbecue

Numerous studies have suggested a causal link between grilling up and cancer, but you can reduce that risk by following these simple pointers for a healthier barbecue.

Top Tips for a Healthy Barbecue

Barbecues are a great way to get family and friends together, and with the summer in full swing, it’s the perfect time to gather outdoors and enjoy an old fashioned grill up. The trouble is, the high cooking temperatures on a barbecue can cause dangerous carcinogens polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) to form.

When amino acids, sugars and creatine (a substance contained in muscle) react at high temperatures, HCAs are formed. PAHs are formed when juices and fats from meat cooked over an open flame drip into the fire, causing flame. Whilst these may seem like nothing more than yet another set of acronyms that have a negative effect on humans, research into the effects of these compounds is quite alarming. Numerous studies have been performed on both animals and humans and found that a high consumption of well-done meats increases the risk of colorectal, stomach and prostate cancer. One study even showed those who have their meat well-done (whether broiled, pan-fried or barbecued) were 60 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

But don’t despair. There’s no need to throw out your barbecue quite yet. Simply follow our simple tips to help make grilling healthier and safer for yourself and your family.

Go Veggie

Unlike meats, fruits and vegetables doesn’t produce harmful HCAs when cooked and therefore have none of the negative health effects of well-grilled burgers, steaks and chicken. Mushrooms, green peppers, corn, zucchini, pumpkin, yellow squash and red onions are all perfectly suited to the grill, and add a splash of colour and extra nutrition to every barbecue. Grilling brings out the natural sweetness in vegetables, so even the most committed carnivores are sure to find something to enjoy.

Another option is to switch out your traditional hamburger patties with homemade veggie burgers. They’re loaded with nutrition and taste great too. Just be sure to keep your grill clean in between using it so you don’t transfer any residual HCAs from previous cook-ups to the patties.

Use Marinades

Beyond imparting delicious flavours and zest to plain cuts of meat, marinades can also reduce the production of nasty chemical compounds in meats. According to the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, marinating meats for two hours significantly reduces HCA formation, so don’t be shy about loading up on your marinades.

Some herbs and spices are full of antioxidants which have been shown to reduce or eliminate HCAs produced during the cooking process. A recent study indicated that rosemary has a particularly potent effect thanks to its high antioxidant content. Meats marinated with a high concentration of rosemary extracts can reduce HCAs by up to 90 percent, whilst other flavorings such as garlic, sage and thyme reduced the total amount of HCAs by 60 percent compared to the control.

It should be noted that sticky, sugary marinates such as barbecue sauce tend to burn easily and don’t have the same preventative effects as other marinades. Vinegar, citrus juice and even beer and wine are thought to be the best bases for marinades, provide an invisible barrier and preventing harmful chemical compounds from forming.

Go Rarer

Consumption of well-done burgers and meats is one of the worst ways you can eat your protein. A University of Minnesota study of 62,000 people over a nine year period found that eating well-done or charred meats can increase pancreatic cancer risk by up to 60 percent. As a general rule, the longer meat is cooked, the higher the risk of consuming HCAs and PAHs, so try eat medium-rare instead of well-done.

HCAs begin to form at 325°F (or 162°C) so another suggestion is turning your grill to a lower heat setting, or moving your cooking grill further away from flames to make it more difficult for meat to burn or char. Flip any cuts of meat every minute or two to prevent them from burning and charring.

Cut Back On Grill Time

The longer meat is cooked, the more chance harmful carcinogens have to form since they’re exposed to smoke and flames for a longer time. Butterflying cuts of meat by slicing them down the middle and halving the thickness of the cut, dicing meat or cutting meat into cubes and putting them onto skewers reduces the surface area of meat, allowing it to cook faster.

The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests pre-cooking meat in the microwave prior to placing meats on the grill as this can release some of the juices that drop on coals. By microwaving meats for two minutes before placing them on the grill, you can avoid the effects of HCAs by up to 90 percent. Be sure to place partially cooked meat onto a pre-heated grill immediately to prevent bacteria and other disease-causing food pathogens from forming. 

Choose The Right Meats

The types of meat that you cook can have a dramatic impact on your exposure to volatile compounds and on nutrition as a whole. Consider the following when deciding on what to grill:

  • Sausages and hotdogs are loaded with fat, and cancer-causing substances can form when these meats are preserved, this according to the American Institute For Cancer Research.

  • Use thinner cuts of meat and remove visible fats still on cuts of meat in order to avoid flare-ups which can cause HCA formation.

  • Consider eating grass-fed beef. It has a much lower fat content than its grain fed counterparts, so there is less fat to drip down and cause PAH-laced smoke to settle into your meat.  

  • Fish tends to cook faster than many red meats or chicken, limiting exposure to carcinogens. Consider throwing some filets of fish onto the grill for your next barbecue.

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