Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden / 16 February, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - barbecued meat health

Photo/Getty Images

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.

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.

Latest

How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more
If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it
103768 2019-03-21 09:31:27Z Social issues

If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it

by The Listener

The little signs among the banks of flowers said, “This is not New Zealand.” They meant, “We thought we were better than this.” We were wrong.

Read more
Extremism is not a mental illness
103785 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

Extremism is not a mental illness

by The Mental Health Foundation of NZ

Shooting people is not a symptom of a mental illness. White supremacy is not a mental illness.

Read more
PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more