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Grilling Gremlins – What to Watch Out For During This Summer BBQ Season

on June 17, 2013

grillI hope all of the dads out there had a wonderful Fathers’ Day yesterday…..I have the fondest memories of the BEST barbeques with my family from Fathers’ Days in the past.  We would spend hours outside in the sunshine, pool, warm weather, and the best part – grilling all kinds of delicious foods.  That day seemed to kick off a season of beach visits where we were always grilling or having bonfires replete with s’mores and blackened marshmallows on a stick (yes, I was a sugar addict when younger and would even resort to eating torched forms of it).  There was something about barbeques and how awesome everything turned out; it was such a simple way to prepare food, too – just throw everything on the grill and your meal was pretty much taken care of table-side outdoors.  You could never replace how great cozying up to a bonfire was, either.  While I was that child who always found the bottle of flame starter and squirted it on any open fire I could locate just to observe the inferno that soon ensued, I don’t think I really gave much thought about what I was breathing in (nor did I care; I was too concerned with how awesome my pyromania skills were).  You definitely can’t deny the “BBQ stench” one has after finishing up grill duty or after you wrap up a night in front of the bonfire; you know what I’m taking about – that crisp, smoky-bones scent of charred goodness.  No matter where you stood to avoid the smoke from the grill, it always seemed to embed itself in your clothes, hair, and on your skin.  And if you used charcoal briquettes?  Oh man, that had an aroma all to itself – eau de chemicals and smoke.  Don’t get me wrong – I love sensory reminders of my favorite summer pastimes, but you may want to consider taking a few more precautions when busting out the grill this summer.  From scientific research supporting that cooking at too high of temperatures actually causes carcinogens to be released out of foods to the plethora of nasty air pollutants and chemicals that are released through the smoke, you may want to pay close attention to some careful steps you can take to make sure you and your family can still enjoy a great barbeque without all of the health risks.  (Did you actually think you could escape any fun pastime or common household action without me sabotaging it with my healthy-scientific-research!?  Heheh. C’mon…)

CHARRING IS SCARRING!

According to a University of Minnesota study that tracked the eating habits of more than 62,000 people over a nine-year period showed that regularly consuming meats cooked well-done or with char marks may increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer by up to 60%.  According to Nutrition Action Healthletter (one of my favorite health publications), cooking meat at a high temperature causes chemicals called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) to form (say that five times fast).  Sure, they sound innocent enough, right?  Well, these carcinogens can cause changes in the DNA that can lead to cancer (think of your genes as on/off switches….some genes that lead to health issues get turned “on” when toxins and/or unhealthy habits influence the body).  PAHs are in smoke from incomplete combustion, so if you can taste smoke on your food, expect it contains those chemicals. Most of the PAHs are associated with smoke or char, so you can scrape them off of your food and reduce your risk from them.  HCAs are not so easy to escape, as they are produced by a chemical reaction between meat and high or prolonged heat. You’ll find these chemicals in fried meat as well as barbeque. You can’t cut or scrape away this class of carcinogens.  Here are some easy tips to help this situation:

  • Choose leaner cuts of meats (which you should do anyway to cut back on the amount of fat and cholesterol) and trimming the fat before you grill (preferably several hours).  As fat and juices drip from the meat when cooking on the grill, flames can flare up and create more smoke (or if using one of the newer electric grills, the temps are still hot enough to burn the fat and juices to create smoke), which leads to carcinogen formation.
  • Avoid meats with preservatives or that have been processed (like traditional hot dogs and sausages).  The preservatives turn into nasty cancer-causing agents when heated.  Try “natural” forms instead that avoid nitrates, nitrites, and other preservatives.  There are many hitting the shelves – Aidelle’s is a great brand, in addition to Trader Joe’s brand.
  • Avoid the meat conundrum altogether and grill veggies and fruits instead!  HCAs and PAHs form in muscle tissue proteins of animal meat. 
  • Surprisingly enough (as this seems to contradict the “more fat and juices dripping from meat = more HCAs), but marinating meat can significantly reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs because it forms a barrier between the meat and grill.  Marinate for at least 30 minutes beforehand and you could decrease the amount of HCAs between 50-80%!
  • Limit contact of food with fire on the grill.  Many people line the grill with aluminum foil and light coat the foil with a high-temp oil like grapeseed or refined coconut oil to help prevent sticking.  Doing so will help cut back on flare-ups and smoke.
  • I know this goes against standard grilling/cooking rules, but flipping the meat frequently can also reduce HCAs by 75 to 95 percent (this helps cut back on the amount of time the meat has to drip juices and fat).  So, just in case you failed at not charring your meat…just be sure to trim the charred parts away before eating.
  • Cut back on the amount of time meat is cooked on the grill.  You know those people – they let stuff sit on the grill for what seems like hours.  Granted, the food may look like it crawled out of a 5-alarm fire by the time someone eats it, but some people actually like food that has been grilled for…awhile.  Whether you’re one of those people or just a bad grill-master, limit the amount of time food cooks on the grill and be sure to cook the meat at the appropriate temperature…which in many cases is a lower temperature anyway (I used to think that cranking the dial all the way to “clean” or “ignite” would make everything cook quicker…hahah).  The less time the food stays on the grill, the less time it’s absorbing all of those HCAs.
  • Clean the grill when done! You should do this anyway.  Eww..who wants to eat food prepared on a grill with nasty char-chunk-nuggets that have been sitting there for days or weeks?  Besides, you’re cutting down on all of those charred HCAs and PAHs.

BARBEQUE BLUNDERS

OK, so now that we have tips on cutting back your exposure to HCAs and PAHs covered, let’s focus on the barbeque/fire pit itself and the health dangers associated with that (especially for children).  Aside from the common-sense cautions you should take when children are around fire and heat, keeping your child out of the line of smoke and fire is safe and smart.  This may be met with some resistance from those darlings who just love to get close enough before something melts in their hand (or those who love to drop something on the grill or fire to see what would happen…..and I’m not speaking from personal experience or anything…ah hem…).

Barbeques add a bunch of nasty, microscopic pollutants into the immediate air everyone breathes around them.  This is even more dangerous for children, whose lungs and airways are much smaller and sensitive to such irritants.  Have a child with asthma or allergies?  Best bet is to keep them far away from barbeques.  Also, be sure to close your doors and windows to the house if the barbeque is nearby, as you do not want these fumes and smoke making their way into your home.

A 2003 study by scientists from Rice University found that microscopic bits of polyunsaturated fatty acids released into the atmosphere from cooking meat on backyard barbecues were helping to pollute the air in Houston. Both briquettes and lump charcoal create air pollution. Lump charcoal, made from charred wood to add flavor, also contributes to deforestation and adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Charcoal briquettes do have the benefit of being made partly from sawdust (a good use of waste wood), but popular brands may also contain coal dust, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone and borax, not to mention the slew of chemicals added to help them ignite.  (Would you let your child breathe in fumes from a bottle of flame starter chemicals?  Well, these same chemicals are what are embedded in charcoal briquettes and then released when ignited…..so you don’t want to be breathing them in or getting the smoke on your skin, hair, or clothes, either – the particles leave deposits on whatever they touch).

In Canada, charcoal is now a restricted product under the Hazardous Products Act.  According to the Canadian Department of Justice, charcoal briquettes in bags that are advertised, imported or sold in Canada must display a label warning of the potential hazards of the product. No such requirements presently exist in the United States.  Consumers can avoid exposure to these potentially harmful additives by sticking with so-called natural charcoal brands. Noram de Mexico’s Sierra Madre 100 percent oak hardwood charcoal contains no coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust or petroleum products and is certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program as sustainably harvested. The product is available at select Sam’s Clubs across the United States. Other manufacturers of all natural charcoal include Greenlink and Lazzari, both of which can be found at natural food outlets across North America.

Other things to be cautious of are the different types of wood used if making a bonfire or adding to your barbeque grill to “enhance flavor” or to use as a “smoker”.  First off, all pregnant women should avoid anything cooked from wood fires or these wood chips added to grills; in addition, steer clear of the smoke.  In terms of the wood being used for fires, you do not know what chemicals came in contact with that wood, and then are being released when burned.  Many times, wood is treated with chemicals, and you may not even know.  Additionally, different types of wood give off certain natural chemicals when burned.  The wood chips used in barbeques even come with warnings on the bag to not be used by pregnant women, as the smoke given off can cause birth defects (awesome!).

We always enjoyed barbequing, and my husband really likes to cook fish on the grill (we have a gas grill)…which is healthier than dousing the fish in butter or oil to cook (you can also bake much of anything you grill…not like that’s fun or practical for a get-together in your backyard, but you get what I mean…).  As with all of my articles, I am not trying to make anyone feel bad if you have eaten charred meat or had a few flub-dubs with the grill.  Just keep a mindful eye out for your health and your family’s health here on out when busting out the BBQ.  Here’s to a happy and healthy summer season filled with awesome memories…..even ones with careful barbeques!

Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us

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