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Do I need to give up the grill?

Balancing the risk of cancer with the desire for a delicious piece of barbecued meat. (Photo Credit: Christopher Craig)

Balancing the risk of cancer with the desire for a delicious piece of barbecued meat. (Photo Credit: Christopher Craig)

Q: Some people say BBQ foods are carcinogenic. Is that true? Do I have to stop barbecueing?

A: The respective answers are: sometimes and no. Column done. I’m off to the beach! (Just kidding.)

Yes, some carcinogenic compounds can be formed when barbequing meats. But, we all know barbeque is delicious and it’s a far preferable option to using the stove on a hot summer day. Barbequed foods can also be quite healthy, as they are not cooked in a pan of fat. So, how do you balance the risk of cancer with the desire for a delicious piece of barbecued meat?

First of all, it’s not just red meat that poses the risk of carcinogenic compounds. Any animal meat (i.e. beef, pork, poultry and even fish) can develop these compounds when cooked at a high temperature. It’s important to note these compounds are not exclusive to barbecuing – they can also be created at high temperatures in pan-frying.

Another type of carcinogenic compound can form in foods that are charred. This can be result from flame-ups caused by grease drips during barbequing but can also be found in other smoked or charred foods (think burnt toast). Barbequing does, however, provide a double whammy as it’s an ideal cooking method to form both of these carcinogenic compounds.

The obvious solution is to turn to a raw vegan diet. But where’s the fun in that? A less drastic solution is to make vegetable the stars of your barbeque. Barbequing vegetables minimizes the risk compared to barbequing meat. Many vegetables are delicious when cooked on the barbeque. Asparagus, zucchini, portobello mushrooms, even cucumber, can be cooked whole or in slices or spears. Smaller vegetables (and pieces of vegetables) like mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and onions work great when grilled on skewers or even in a frying pan on the barbeque.

There are several ways to minimize the development of carcinogenic compounds when barbequing meats. Try to pre-cook your meat and just finish it off on the barbeque to get that nice barbeque flavour and attractive grill lines. Or avoid direct flame exposure as much as possible by cooking your meat on a slate (yes, seriously, a slate tile), on a plank, or in a pan.

If you do choose to cook directly on the grill, try using a lower temperature and cooking for a longer time. Choosing leaner meats reduces the risk of flare-ups from grease dripping onto the gas or coals. If you do have flare-ups, keep a spray bottle of water handy to quickly douse them.

As we know, too much of anything is unhealthy. As long as you’re not barbequing every meal, and you’re including plenty of vegetables, there’s no reason to give up the grill.

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