What could be bad about a backyard barbecue? Plenty. Health and safety officials have issued enough warnings about everything from undercooked food to charcoal fires to cast a chill on grilling. However, findings by cancer societies and other groups are the most alarming: grilled food may cause cancer. So is it time to put away the barbecue and move the party back inside? Not if you follow some simple guidelines to minimize the risks.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Cancer Risk
Grilling meat, poultry, or fish, whether over wood, charcoal, or gas, exposes the food — and whoever eats it — to two separate carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in the smoke created when fat drips from meat, chicken skin, or fatty fish (such as salmon) onto a heat source. The PAH-filled smoke coats the food, which we then ingest.
The second type of carcinogen, heterocyclic amines (HCAs), develops in meat, poultry, and fish that is cooked over high heat. Extreme temperatures prompt a reaction between the food’s natural amino acids and creatine, a substance found in muscle tissue. HCAs are the product of that reaction. HCAs can also form in foods that are broiled, especially well-done red meat.
The good news is that if you take a few precautions, you can enjoy the fun and food of outdoor cooking and stay healthy, too.
1. Stay clear of burned steer. This simple change may be the most difficult to make for fans of charred steaks, hamburgers, and chicken. At the very least, eat well-done meat sparingly. (While avoiding extremes, you’ll still want to cook meat completely, to make sure you eliminate illness-causing bacteria like E. coli.)
2. Keep the fat to a minimum. Cut down on carcinogens by grilling only lean cuts of meat and trimming all visible fat, and removing the skin from chicken.
3. Grill fish instead. Fish generally contains less fat than meat and poultry do, which makes it less likely to create PAH-carrying smoke. And it tends to require much less time on the grill, reducing its exposure to carcinogens.
4. Precook your foods. The higher the temperature at which foods cooks and the longer it stays on the grill, the more HCAs develop. Partially cooking meat or poultry in the microwave for two to five minutes draws out most of the potentially harmful chemicals without sacrificing moistness. (Be sure to discard the juices produced.) You can also place it in the oven at a low temperature. An additional benefit to these approaches is that slow-cooking the food and then finishing it on the grill prevents the charred-on-the-outside, raw-on-the-inside result that has embarrassed many an outdoor chef. To prevent bacteria from multiplying, grill the food immediately after precooking.
5. Oil your grill. A little oil keeps charred material from sticking to the food. (It also helps keep fish and chicken in one piece.)
6. Use aluminum foil. Make tiny holes in a piece of foil and place it on the grill underneath your meat. The holes let the fat drip down, and the foil reduces the amount of smoke the billows back up. Wrapping the meat completely with perforated foil is an even better idea.
7. Lower the heat. On charcoal grills, increase the distance between the food and the hot coals by spreading the coals thin or by propping the grill rack on bricks. Simply adjust the heat setting on gas grills.
8. Stick to charcoal and hardwood. Barbecue briquettes and hardwood products, such as hickory and maple, burn at lower temperatures than softwood and softwood (pine) chips. Mesquite chips are slightly less safe than those made of other hardwoods but are safer than softwoods.
9. Clean your grill. Scrub your grill thoroughly after every use to avoid a buildup of carcinogens that can be transferred to your food the next time you grill. For tough grease, put the dirty rack into a plastic garbage bag. Add water and dishwashing liquid and leave overnight. Brush off the residue and rinse. You may also want to heat the grill before placing food on it to kill any surviving bacteria. If you have a gas grill with permanent briquettes, turn them greasy side down, light the grill, and with the temperature at high, close the cover. After 20 minutes the briquettes will be as good as new.
10. Marinades not only make grilled foods taste better, they may also make them safer. A chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California found that marinating chicken in simple mixture of olive oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice, salt, and brown sugar reduced carcinogenic compounds in the finished product by more than 90 percent. Researchers don’t know why; they suspect that marinating draws out chemical precursors of carcinogens.
The only caveat is to treat marinades, which draw bacteria from meat and poultry, as a raw food. To use a marinade as a serving sauce, set aside a portion before you place the meat in it or boil it for three minutes before serving.