Cooking meat on a barbecue grill is widely popular not only because it provides an opportunity for some outdoor fun with friends, but it’s often considered a healthy way to cook with less added fat.
However, laboratory studies show that barbecuing meat, if not done properly, may not be that healthy after all.
Lab studies on animals have found that barbecuing meat can expose you to high levels of harmful chemicals known as PAHs and HCAs, which have been linked to cancer. PAHs and HCAs, which only form on grilled meats – and not on grilled fruits and vegetables – can cause changes in DNA that may increase your risk of cancer.
However, experts point out that there is insufficient evidence establishing the link between exposure to PAHs and HCAs from barbecued meats and cancer in humans. Additionally, your consumption of barbecued meats is unlikely to be large enough or often enough for any substantial risk to your health.
The World Health Organization also notes: “High-temperature cooking methods generate compounds that may contribute to carcinogenic risk, but their role is not yet fully understood.”
What are PAHs and HCAs?
PAHs are produced when the fat from the meat grilling on the barbecue drips onto the hot coals below. As it burns smoke containing PAHs rises up and coats the meat. PAHs are also found in cigarette smoke.
HCAs are formed because of the reaction of amino acids, sugars and the substance creatine found in meat, to high temperatures. These chemicals can also form during frying and other types of high-heat cooking, but their level tends to be higher during barbecuing because of the tendency to overcook meat until it is charred.
If you enjoy barbecued meats and are concerned about your exposure to harmful chemicals, follow these expert tips for barbecuing safely:
Marinate meats: This reduces the heat intensity and decreases the formation of HCAs.
Pre-cook in a pan, microwave, oven etc: This reduces the exposure to the flames in the grill.
Cut the meat into small pieces and cook on skewers: This reduces the grilling time.
Use lean cuts and trim the fat from the meat: This limits the amount of fat that drips onto the coals and also reduces charring.
Flip food frequently to reduce the heat intensity: Use a tong or spatula instead of a fork, which can pierce the meat and may cause juices from the meat to drip onto the coals.
Avoid overcooking and charring meat, and remove any charred portions before consumption.