Cooking food over fire definitely has a certain magic to it. But what price do we pay?
Good friends, alcohol, blazing hot sun and a naked flame or two – on paper barbecues sound like quite a risky business. But in the good old days, all you really had to worry about was food poisoning from a crispy-on-the-outside, pink-in-the-middle pork sausage. Now research has caught up, and we know that cooking meat in certain ways throws up an array of carcinogenic hazards. Don’t worry, there is plenty you can do to avoid the dangers – but first, here’s a quick science lesson on why barbecuing is bad:
when meat is cooked at high temperatures (100°c or above), substances called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form. This is due to the meat’s creatine, amino acids and sugars reacting with the heat. If the temperature being used to cook rises above 300°c, these HCAs become even worse for you. And people do cook at that temperature – think of searing a steak in a pan on a high heat to brown it and you’ll get the idea. And of course the naked flame of a barbecue can leave food charred beyond recognition. These HCAs can damage DNA, and animal studies show they contribute to cancer development when eaten in high doses.
But HCAs are not the only carcinogen with a scientific-sounding name that you’ve got to look out for. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are created when meat is charred or blackened, and also when fat drips onto a hot surface – a grill or a flame – and smoke is formed. The PAHs in the smoke then permeate the meat.
These dangers aren’t exclusive to barbecuing – any direct heat source, such as frying or grilling (as opposed to indirect, like steaming or boiling) will create them, and the higher the heat and the longer the food is cooked for, the more that will form.
So that’s the bad news. But we’re not here to kill your fun totally. After all, there are many great health benefits to a barbecue: socialising is good for your health, so is spending time in the great outdoors. We are just here to help you do it safely. So listen up for some great tips on making your gathering just that little bit more healthy.
HCAs can be reduced by up to 90 percent by using marinades. However, these MUST be homemade, because commercial sauces are full of sugar and have been shown to actually double or even triple HCA formation (a honey barbecue sauce marinade increased HCA formation between two and three times in a study!). Think olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, spices, wine and yoghurt. A study found a red wine marinade on fried chicken breasts reduced one particular HCA by 88 percent. Fresh garlic in a meat patty reduces them by 70 percent. Onion powder also came up trumps. And the hero herb to use is rosemary – in marinades and even placed on the meat (heat side) it can lower formation by up to 90 percent. Interestingly, less is more in terms of time – one study found that soaking meat for more than five hours reduced antioxidant activity. Stick to just a couple of hours, and brushing a little on to the food just before serving will give it an extra boost.
Your hosts may look at you a little strangely if you turn up for their barbie armed with broccoli, but so what? Just tell them research shows eating this vegetable can help negate the negative effects of eating grilled or barbecued meat, when consumed at the same time. Plus, broccoli and other cruciferous veg like kale and cauliflower are packed with essential antioxidants that help fight free radicals from sun damage. You can always incorporate small pieces of steamed and cooled broccoli into a mixed salad if you’re feeling coy.
Foods with added nitrates – think bacon, sausages, ham and other deli-counter meats – are already more strongly linked to cancer than whole cuts, and so you should avoid these. Choose unprocessed, outdoor-reared, grass-fed meat. Grass-fed is higher in vitamin E than intensively farmed meat, and one study found adding vitamin E to beef reduced HCA production by 70 percent.
Charcoal grilling causes the highest amount of PAHs so if a gas grill is an option, choose that. And cook your meat as rare as you can bare – the darker the colour the more HCAs present. Flipping it regularly is a good idea. And do not think that by wrapping meat or fish in aluminium foil you’ll be producing a healthier meal – research shows heavy metal leaches into the food when it’s heated (this applies to oven cooking too). There’s no question that ingesting aluminium is bad for you, and worryingly, researchers have recently found high concentrations of this heavy metal in the brain tissue of those with Alzheimer’s.
And finally, always check any processed food and chicken is cooked thoroughly. “Use a food thermometer to make sure,” says Egzona Makolli, nutritionist at Kinectic Enterprises. “Remember to wash hands with soap and water before and after handling any meat or poultry, and do not re-use any cooking platters or utensils as this can spread bacteria from the raw food juices to cooked food.”
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