Aussies love a good barbie. On any given sunny day, you can find folks all over Australia firing up the Weber, knocking back a cold one as sausages, steak, and kebabs blacken on the grill. In fact, barbecuing is right up there with vegemite and cricket as one of the cornerstones of Australian culture. But does our love of all things char-grilled come at a cost?
If you enjoy your steak blackened beyond recognition, I’ve got some bad news. It turns out that the charcoal-y black crust contains a myriad of carcinogenic compounds that may pre-dispose you colon, prostate, breast, kidney and pancreatic cancer [1,2] . Barbecued poultry, seafood, eggs and tofu too don’t get off scathe-free either and contain carcinogenic compounds under the right conditions.
The two main carcinogenic culprits are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). PAHs form on meat when fat falls onto the heat source and smokes up, enveloping your delicious dinner in a plume of harmful compounds. HCAs, on the other hand, form when protein-rich foods are exposed to high temperatures, causing protein structures to change .
Healthy Barbecuing Tips...
Luckily, there is a solution! With a few tricks you can significantly reduce the formation of cancer-causing nasties on your slab of steak, chicken kebab or piece of fish. Here are some simple strategies for reducing carcinogens:
- Marinate: Marinating forms a protective shield around the meat and reduce almost all PAH and HCA build-up.
- Microwave: Nuke your food for a minute or so and pat it dry prior to minimize both fat drippings and protein changes.
- Trim the fat: Cut off visible fat prior to cooking to reduce smoking fat.
- Cook low and slow: Turn down the heat and cook slowly to reduce both PAH and HCA formation.
- Create an aluminium shield: Shield your food from smoke and high temperatures by covering it in tin foil.
- Practice portion control: Cook small pieces of meat rather than large. Smaller pieces cook more quickly and as such, there is less opportunity for carcinogen formation.
- Flip frequently: Flip your food every minute or so to prevent HCA formation.
- Say goodbye to blackened bits: Trim off blackened edges prior to consumption.
- Clean your barbecue after each use: Minimize carcinogen build-up from use to use by cleaning your barbie thoroughly after each use.
The Bottom Line...
With a few adjustments, barbecuing is a relatively lean and healthy way to prepare food once or twice a week. Unlike frying and sautéing, fat is used sparsely during cooking. Furthermore, the negative effects of charring don’t apply to veggies so you can continue grilling veggies on the barbie guilt-free.
 Chemicals in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute. 2010.
 Applying the precautionary principle to nutrition and cancer. Gonzales JF, Barnard ND, Jenkins DJ, Lanou AJ, Davis B, Saxe G, Levin S. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(3):239-46.