The Truth Behind Barbecuing and Carcinogens

What would a Fourth of July celebration be without a traditional barbecue? Americans love affair with cooking on an outdoor charcoal grill developed as Americans moved west.

So this Wednesday, as you reach for a piece of our national heritage, should you also be worried that your grilled meats may contain carcinogens?

The subject of carcinogens and grilling, according to Steven Raichlen, has been blown out of proportion. Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible and How To Grill, is also host of the long running PBS series, “Barbecue University.”

“The problem is way, way, way, way overstated,” he said. “It’s been put to me that if you eat 200 charcoal grilled steaks back-to-back, you increase your risk of getting cancer by one in a million. It’s the same as getting an X-ray in a doctor’s office increases your chance of getting cancer by one in a million, and turning 60 increases your chance of cancer by one in a million.”

The first culprit in the great carcinogen debate is the smoke that arises when fat and meat juices fall onto the flames. This smoke contains carcinogenic substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The theory is that the PAH-filled smoke coats the food, which we in turn eat.The second type of carcinogen, heterocyclic amines (HCAs), develops in meat that is cooked over high heat. These substances are the byproduct of the heat-induced chemical reaction between the meat’s amino acids and the creatine found in its muscle tissue.

But Raichlen doesn’t believe there is much to worry about.

“The grilling of meats is part of what made it possible for us to make the leap from hominid (early humans) to the modern, sentient, thinking, socialized beings we are today,” he said. “There have been studies at Harvard that show that pre-grilling hominids had big jaws, big teeth and small brains. Once they started grilling meat, they had smaller jaws and teeth and bigger brains. If grilling were consistently bad, we wouldn’t be here as a species.”

Raichlen offers this advice for grillers who may be concerned:

— Use indirect grilling – This technique works for both charcoal and gas grills. When using gas, light one side on high and grill the meat on the opposite side. On a charcoal grill, rake the charcoal in mounds at three o’clock and nine o’clock and grill the meat in the center.

— Buy leaner meats – Raichlen isn’t advocating passing up that well-marbled steak. What he is saying is that to trim excess fat that may cause flare-ups, without sacrificing flavor.

— Grill more vegetables and fish –carcinogens are not associated with these food items.

— Learn the difference between grilling and burning – “The goal of grilling is to turn the meat golden brown, not black,” said Raichlen.

The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association agrees that trimming excess fat from meat to help prevent grill flare-ups is a good idea. It also suggests lining the grill’s cooking surface with punctured aluminum foil, or using cedar planks to protect against flare-ups and charring.

Here are some other tips the association recommends:

— Turn food often with tongs to prevent charring.

— Do not press, flatten or pierce the meat. It will cause flavorful juices to be lost and may cause flare-ups.

— Use proper cooking temperatures: An internal temperature of 165 for poultry; 160 degrees for ground beef and pork; 150 degrees for large-cut pork roasts; and 145 degrees for beef roasts, steaks, seafood and lamb.