Food on the barbecue

Is it OK to cook food on the barbecue? I’ve heard that eating barbecued food increases your risk of cancer.

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Many people, as they head into the warm days of summer, love the taste and convenience of throwing a few burgers, steaks or chicken breasts on the barbecue. However, this summertime tradition may come at a cost to your health.

Say no to well done

Research has shown that grilling meats, poultry or fish may raise the risk of cancer, including cancers of the colon, breast and prostate. In a study at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health involving more than 900 women, those who ate hamburger, steak and bacon very well done were almost five times more likely to get breast cancer than women who ate these meats cooked rare or medium. In a U.S. National Cancer Institute study involving almost 400 women and men, those who ate grilled or pan-fried red meat cooked until well done or very well done were significantly more likely to have precancerous tumours of the colon.

Turn down the heat

High-heat cooking methods such as grilling and broiling can cause muscle meats (red meat, poultry and fish) to produce cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). The longer the meat cooks at high temperatures, the more compounds are formed. There are especially high levels on the surface of the meat, particularly where it is charred. Other cancer-causing compounds, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are formed when fat drips onto hot coals or stones when you barbecue. These potent carcinogens are deposited back onto food by the smoke and flare-ups.

Safe barbecues

Does this mean you should avoid eating foods cooked on the barbecue altogether? No. Just keep the following tips in mind to help reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds when you do grill or use other high-temperature cooking methods, such as broiling:

• Marinate before cooking. This is one of the most effective ways to reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds (in some cases by more than 90 per cent). Which marinade ingredients offer the best protection? Research in this area is preliminary, but it appears that ingredients such as vinegar, citrus juice, herbs, spices, garlic and olive oil may help reduce HCA formation.
• Use lean meat and trim the fat to reduce the chance of fat dripping onto the coals and creating flare-ups.
• If cooking chicken or fish, consider leaving the skin on while cooking. Then discard the skin along with many of the cancer-causing compounds before eating. Keep in mind, however, that chicken skin is especially fatty and can result in fat dripping onto hot coals and forming cancer-causing compounds. Try to avoid cooking other items on the grill at the same time to reduce their exposure to the compounds.
• Precook meats in the oven or microwave, then grill them briefly for flavour.
• Keep meat portions small so that cooking time is shorter. For example, cook kebabs instead of a large cut of steak.
• Keep flipping. Recent research has found that cooking hamburger patties at a lower temperature and turning them often (flipping every minute, rather than turning just once during cooking) accelerates the cooking process, helps to prevent the formation of HCAs and is effective at killing bacteria.
• Remove all charred or burnt portions of food before eating.
• Grill vegetables, fruit or soy burgers instead of meat, poultry or fish. In addition to their other health benefits, vegetables don’t form cancer-causing compounds when they’re cooked at high temperatures.
• Enjoy lots of healthy food, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains and even green or black tea along with your grilled meat, fish or poultry. Foods that are rich in antioxidants or that are high in fibre appear to either suppress cancer-causing compounds, such as HCAs, or bind with these compounds so that they are not absorbed by the body.

Liz Pearson is a registered dietitian, professional speaker and co-author of The Ultimate Healthy Eating Plan (That Still Leaves Room for Chocolate) (Whitecap).