Smoke and direct flame contact with food increases cancer risk, say experts. Our guide to a fitter barbecue!
So, how much should we worry?
In recent years, a growing body of research has found that cooking meat over a flame increases our exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens known as PAHs and HCAs. These can damage the DNA in our genes, possibly leading to skin, liver, stomach and other sorts of cancer. While this risk also applies to other high-heat cooking techniques such as frying and grilling, PAHs and HCAs are caused by a combination of smoke and direct flame contact with food, so barbecuing poses more of a risk. The type of meat we tend to eat at barbecues poses a problem, too.
A higher consumption of burgers is associated with a 79 per cent increased risk of advanced prostate cancer. Processed red meat, such as ribs and sausages, has been linked to digestive cancers. The meat itself is a risk but the concern is also partly due to the chemicals used to preserve these products.
The build-up of carcinogens happens in one of three ways when we barbecue -by the surface of the food becoming contaminated by smoke, through the breakdown of fat, protein and carbohydrate as the food cooks, or as fat drips from the meat or poultry on to the hot embers and causes a chemical reaction. The third is by far the most common because the dripping fat also produces more smoke. So, the less fat meat has on it, the better.
Cooking over natural gas or propane grills reduces the pollution emitted, so it is much safer. But, of course, it doesn’t give the food that traditional smoky flavour. When coal is smouldering at its hottest and we cook on it, the smoke emitted contains poisonous gases, such as carbon monoxide and PAHs.
Breathing in too much of it can be harmful to the lungs. It’s no coincidence that cigarette smoke also contains PAHs. When ingested, the PAHs go directly to our cells. Unlike meat, vegetables don’t create carcinogens when they char as the formation of HCAs depends on the presence of creatine, which is mostly found in muscle tissue. The lack of fat also means there are no flare-ups that can create smoke.
Smart barbie tips
Lower the temperature on your gas grill to prevent meat from burning. Ideally, use a barbecue that has a temperature control dial.» Part-cook larger items such as chicken pieces in a microwave or oven before you barbecue to reduce charring.» Marinate the meat to create a barrier be tween it and the formation of HCAs. Soak ing it in beer overnight tenderises it, adds flavour and reduces PAHs by 50%.» Use a smokeless BBQ with a built-in battery-powered fan to stop the BBQ from smoking and prevent carcinogens from being inhaled.» Switch to seafood, which typically forms fewer HCAs than meat and re quires shorter cooking time.» Opt for leaner meats and trim any fat before grilling to reduce dripping and flame flare-ups.» Cut down on grill time by oven-roasting or pan-searing meat.» Clean your grill after use to avoid trans ferring leftover chemicals.» Cut meat into smaller portions to re duce cooking time and flip food over frequently.» If you do nothing else, pick off the burnt bits before eating.