Are Charcoal BBQs Bad for You?
Summer starts and ends with my first and last barbecue. There is nothing better than tossing a slab of meat on the grill with one hand and holding a drink in the other. But recently when I was showing off my new apron, my fitness fanatic friend started to tell me that charcoal barbecues can cause cancer. Determined to prove this friend wrong at least once in my life, and loving barbecues so much, I decided to do some research. Were they right? Yes and no, to some extent. Here’s what I found.
The Charcoal Itself Is OK
The word I kept finding when I researched charcoal was carcinogen. Carcinogen apparently means something that can contribute to cancer. Charcoal itself is not carcinogenic, although I imagine eating briquettes isn't good for you. When using a charcoal barbecue, it is what you are cooking and how it is prepared that can provide the cancer risk. Unfortunately for charcoal, it reaches an extremely high temperature and quite often has dripping, full-fat sausages that are full of chemicals, sweating on the grill above. Each drop of carcinogenic sausage sweat creates smoke when it drops down onto the charcoal. This smoke can stick to your food and cause problems.
If it's not the Charcoal, What is It?
There are two factors that have had links to causing cancer regarding charcoal barbecues. The first one is what you are actually grilling. This tends to be red or processed meats, both of which have had links to cancer. The second factor is the method of the grilling itself. Often when we barbecue, we end up eating smoke because we are not grilling correctly, or not controlling the oxygen levels of our barbecue.
Eating Smoke is Bad for You
If I asked you to breathe the smoke that came off your barbecue, you would think I was joking. How about if I asked you to eat it? When your food is placed on the barbeque grill prematurely, it sits in smoke and flames. If a fatty food you are grilling drips onto your charcoal, this also causes smoke to rise over your food. When cooked in smoke from your charcoal barbecue, that smoke sticks to the outside of your food. Smoke marinades sometimes taste good and are even advertised on some foods. But eating this smoke marinade, and the carcinogenic chemicals that are in the smoke is one of the reasons charcoal is getting a bad rep.
Why is Barbequing at High Temperature Bad for You?
In typical fashion, barbecuing at high temperatures is only bad for you when barbecuing the most common food someone would usually barbecue – meat. High temperatures cause the amino acids and creatine in the meat to do something that a chemistry teacher could explain. This high temperature chemistry apparently turns the meat carcinogenic – yes that bloody word again.
There’s Good News
The first bit of good news is that I am going to tell my fitness friend that they are wrong. it is not charcoal barbeques that can be bad for you, it is what you cook on them and how you cook it. The second bit of good news is that there are loads of solutions that allow us to keep barbecuing all summer. So, buy another apron and carry on reading.
Remember, it's not the charcoal itself that’s the problem, it's what is cooked. So the first solution is to cook less processed meats. Apparently, it is regular exposure to these sorts of things that is bad for you. I have decided to mix it up with a new routine. For example, I have red meat once a week, processed meat once a week, a vegetable barbecue day, a fish barbecue day. This sort of routine decreases my risk to that dreaded word - carcinogens, and still allows me to barbecue until my heart's content - literally. However, you want to do it, the main suspects are red meat and processed meat.
There are many parts to the second solution. The main goal is to avoid cooking your food in smoke. Gas barbecues are less smoky than charcoal. If you are insistent on charcoal, like me, one way to achieve less smoke is to make sure your charcoal is heated and grey in colour before putting food on the grill. Another way to achieve less smoke is to make sure your grill Is placed high enough above your charcoal to avoid any bursting flames. Another way to avoid smoke is to place all your coal in the middle of the barbecue, and your food on the outer edges of the grill.
You can also reduce the amount of time your food is on the grill, and in turn, its exposure to smoke, by cutting it up. You can try to grill foods that contain less fat so there are less actual drips to cause the smoke and flames. You can pre-cook your food before placing it on the barbecue. I'm sure you get the point. Just try not to eat food cooked in smoke and flames if you want to avoid the carcinogen.