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Grill Talk


Barbecuing is enormously popular. There's a price to pay, though. When we grill meat - beef, pork, lamb, poultry, or fish - carcinogens enter our food. Here are a few things we can do to make barbecuing less harmful.

Barbecuing is enormously popular. There’s a price to pay, though. When we grill meat - beef, pork, lamb, poultry, or fish - carcinogens enter our food. Here are a few things we can do to make barbecuing less harmful.

First, we need to understand that whenever fat drips onto a flame, heating element, or hot coals, chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed. They rise with the smoke and are deposited onto the surface of the food. Hydrocarbons can also form directly on food when it is charred. Grilled meat is the major source of PAHs in our food. Of the more than 200 PAHs found in the environment, at least 18 have been identified in charbroiled or smoked food.

So what? Well, these compounds have been considered carcinogenic since as early as 1775, when Dr Percival Pott of London linked PAH–containing soot to cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweeps. Depending on which expert you consult, either five or 12 of those 18 PAHs cause cancer in laboratory animals. The rest of the 18 have not been classified as carcinogenic - yet.

The key to preventing PAHs from forming is to ensure the heat source or flame doesn’t touch our food so as to char it. We also need to stop fat from dripping onto the heat source. That’s why broiling - with the heat source above the food - pan cooking, stewing, and baking result in few, if any, PAHs. That’s also why grilled fatty meats such as pork ribs contain more PAHs than leaner cuts.

While PAHs are limited to barbecuing, other risky chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HAs) occur more frequently in broiled and pan-fried meats but also form in barbecued meats. HAs are formed from the burning of protein components called amino acids, and from other substances that are in all meats. In general, the hotter the temperature and the more well-done the meat, the more HAs. One study by the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics found that those who ate their beef well-done - or even just medium-well - had more than three times the risk of stomach cancer compared with those who ate rare or medium-rare beef.

PAHs or HAs, which are more dangerous? Unfortunately, researchers don’t yet know. But since broiling and other cooking methods produce only HAs, and barbecuing creates both HAs and PAHs, barbecuing may be riskier. Worse, we don’t fully understand how the different chemicals in barbecued meats interact. So if you eat barbecued meats every day, you’re definitely increasing your cancer risk. Playing with fire, so to speak.

Not too long ago, people with a vegetarian bent had to forego juicy burgers. Now that more people have stopped eating meat, food technologists have gotten better at spinning soy and other ingredients into meat-like burgers, balls, and “crumbles.” Food-industry chefs have gone far beyond meat, creating veggie and other patties that redefine the word “burger.” Today, you can buy burgers, hot dogs, nuggets, and other products that are every bit as convenient as their meat versions. A bonus: there’s no greasy mess to clean up and far less worry about food poisoning than there is with meat. There’s also less damage to the environment.

Know the correct way to use your grill safely and make barbecuing an occasional treat. Opt for a veggie grill or stock up on meatless burgers and hot dogs. If you really must have meat, follow these guidelines to keep harmful carcinogens to a minimum. Let the flames begin.

Reduce the Cancer Risk

Reduce the cancer risks of the occasional barbecue by doing the following:

  • Select the least fatty cuts of organic beef, chicken, and ribs or choose wild fish.
  • Avoid eating liquid drippings.
  • Cut away charred parts.
  • Grill only thawed meat as the outside of frozen meat chars while the inside remains frozen.
  • Trim off as much fat as possible and remove all skin before cooking.
  • Baste with barbecue sauce to increase the distance between the heat and the meat.
  • Keep fat from dripping onto the heat source and producing smoke.
  • Place a metal pan or heavy-duty aluminum foil underneath grilling food.
  • Better still, grill a load of vegetables wrapped in foil and skip the meat.

The Varied Tastes of Grilled Vegetables

Foiled again
For a hassle-free dish, prepare grilled vegetable packets. Coat a large square of heavy-duty foil with vegetable oil, add assorted sliced or julienne vegetables, and drizzle with olive oil, organic wine, and fresh herbs. Fold long sides of foil up and over vegetables; then fold long edges over three times to seal. Now fold short ends over three times to form a packet. Grill with lid down until vegetables are tender. Hard vegetables, such as potatoes, take up to 20 minutes. 

Pressing news
Grilled tofu is delicious but take the time to press out excess moisture first. It will have a “meatier” texture and will also hold together better on the grill. Place firm or extra-firm tofu on a kitchen towel or paper towels set on a cutting board. Weight tofu with a plate and a heavy can and let stand 30 to 60 minutes; then brush tofu with a mixture of soy sauce and sesame oil. Brush grill rack generously with vegetable oil to prevent sticking and grill, basting often with the same mixture until browned, usually about 5 minutes per side.

Skewer care
Before threading vegetables onto bamboo skewers, soak the skewers in water for at least 30 minutes so they won’t incinerate on the hot grill. Position vegetables so they just touch each other to ensure the skewer doesn’t burn where it’s not covered with food.



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Brendan Rolfe, CPHR, BA, DipABrendan Rolfe, CPHR, BA, DipA