Amid growing concerns that eating too much charred meat can be bad for you, how do you create a healthy barbecue?
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Let’s be quite clear from the outset that there’s no need for alarm — the odd burnt sausage is unlikely to do you much harm. But if you enjoy a regular barbecue, a few small changes to the way you prepare and cook your food means you need have no cause for concern.
The heat is on
When we cook protein-rich foods like meat, chicken and fish at high temperatures on an open flame, it produces a group of potentially harmful chemicals.
Called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), these by-products of cooking have been linked in lab studies to a higher risk of cancer. It’s not clear yet if the same cancer risk also applies to humans.
HCAs form when amino acids from protein react with sugars at high temperatures. When fat drips and burns on the grill, the resulting smoke contains PAHs which can coat the food. The higher the cooking temperature and the more charred that food is, the higher the HCA and PAH content.
Low and slow
The good news is you can reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs by cooking your meat for longer at a lower temperature. Well-done meat has over three times more HCAs than medium-rare meat, so not overcooking food is a key habit. Turning meat on the grill often will also help reduce HCA formation.
Choose leaner cuts of meat to prevent dripping fat from causing PAH flare-ups, and remove charred pieces from meat before eating. Keep your barbecue surface clean between barbies by using a wire brush to stop charred build-up transferring to your food.
Don’t cook for AGEs
There’s another group of chemicals to watch out for when you’re grilling at high heat — they’re called advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). AGEs arise naturally when you heat food to the point of browning or charring. AGEs are not entirely benign chemicals. Accumulating them in your body can help promote inflammation linked with the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Just as with HCAs and PAHs, you can reduce AGE formation by choosing to cook at lower temperatures and by making sure not to overcook food.
Marinate, it’s great!
It’s not all doom and gloom when cooking food on a barbie. There’s one simple trick that you can use to increase taste and flavour — and cut down on all the by-products of grilling and charring. Marinate!
One study found that using spicy marinades can decrease the HCA formation on grilled beef steaks by almost 90 percent. The herbs and spices in marinades are a good source of antioxidants that help inhibit HCA formation.
Another study has found that using rosemary in marinades for homemade burgers could reduce HCA formation from grilling by over 90 per cent.
As for potentially harmful AGEs, research has likewise found that by marinating meat in a vinegar or lemon-based marinade for one hour before cooking, you can cut down AGE formation by over half. Not only does the acidity reduce AGE levels, it also enhances the flavour of food.
A barbie doesn’t have to turn into a meat-fest, especially as eating too much of it is linked to a higher risk of colon cancer. Instead of just beef, throw salmon or tuna steaks on the hotplate to reap the health benefits of healthy omega-3 fats. Sausages are a barbecue staple, but because they’re processed meat they don’t rate well on the health scale. Look for flavour-rich lean and reduced-fat varieties of sausage.
Grilling also intensifies the flavour of fruits and vegetables, just as it does for meat, but with no HCA by-products. So kebabs are a great choice, allowing you to alternate meat with pieces of onion, capsicum or other produce that takes your fancy. More vegies, better health!