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Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

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Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution. 

Summer evenings and long weekends are prime time for outdoor cooking. But what’s the truth about the health risks of barbecued meat?

 Apart from the effects of the cooking method itself – more about that shortly –  the World Cancer Research Fund last year reported there was convincing evidence that eating processed meats such as bacon, sausages and salami increases bowel-cancer risk, and that red meat “probably” increases the risk of cancer of the bowel and the pharynx, or upper throat.

Partly for reasons of health, and no doubt also cost, New Zealanders on average are eating about 22kg less red meat than a decade ago, according to OECD data. More of us are adopting plant-based diets, vegetarian diets are on the rise and red-meat eaters are often choosing quality over quantity.

Is barbecuing meat riskier than other cooking methods?

Barbecue grilling of muscle meats such as pork, red meat, poultry and fish may produce compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) as a reaction to high temperatures. Meat may also be contaminated by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) during grilling, when fat and juices cause flames and smoke that blacken the food. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.
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Hundreds of different HCAs and PAHs exist, a number of which are of particular concern. They are listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probable carcinogens.

Whereas HCAs result from high-heat cooking, PAHs may end up in our body by various routes. PAHs enter the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, so they’re in the air we breathe, on crops and in waterways. An English study found organically grown vegetables had traces of PAHs as a result of their presence in the soil. But the highest concentration of the compounds is found in grilled and barbecued foods,  so for non-smokers, dietary intake is of particular concern.

What does the presence of these probable carcinogens in our barbecued meat mean in reality?

In a 2018 report titled “Diet, nutrition, physical activity and stomach cancer”, the World Cancer Research Fund noted limited or suggestive evidence linking the risk of barbecued and grilled meat to stomach cancer, based on a small number of suitable studies.

The fund’s researchers found that as consumption of grilled fish and meat went up, the risk of cancer rose. However, there was not strong evidence of HCAs and PAHs as being the cause.

Still, to minimise the levels of HCAs and PAHs produced when you barbecue muscle meats, there are some simple things you can do. For example, studies have shown that marinating meat, poultry and fish may reduce the production of HCAs by more than 90%. Altering our barbecuing habits and techniques can also substantially reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs (see tips above).

By following the guidelines, and accompanying grilled meats with a variety of healthy antioxidant-packed salads, we can still enjoy a backyard barbecue.

Better-barbecuing tips

  • Marinate meats, poultry and fish using ingredients such as vinegar, citrus juice, herbs, spices and olive oil. 
  • Trim fat off meat, remove poultry skin and avoid high-fat meats to limit PAH production.
  • Precook meats, fish and poultry in the microwave or oven, then briefly barbecue to finish.
  • Limit meat portion size – smaller equals faster cooking.
  • Lower the barbecue temperature slightly and turn meat often to limit HCA formation but still kill bacteria.
  • Don’t let flames touch the food.
  • Use tongs or a spatula to turn food to prevent meats being pierced then dripping, resulting in smoke or flare-ups.
  • Use the flat plate on the barbecue or pierced tinfoil on the grill to reduce food exposure to smoke and flames.
  • Remove all charred and burnt bits of food before eating – medium well done is preferable to very well done.

Source: American Institute for Cancer Research.

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.