Backyard Debate: The Best Barbeque

Backyard barbeques are an American tradition. Even people (men, actually) who rarely venture into the kitchen are willing and ready to strap on the apron and fire up their favorite appliance – the grill. Of course, only his grill is good enough and don’t you dare tell him otherwise. The debate about the merits of charcoal, briquettes, gas or electrical grills ranges every summer in the backyards all over America. But, there is a shadow that spoils the grilling fun: the news that barbequed meat is very bad for our health and for the environment and that with every bite of delicious charred meat we are slowly killing ourselves.

Not only grilling

According to the very informative article published in the Harvard Health Publication,  the main problem is not in the grilling but in cooking meat at very high temperatures.

When cooked at high temperatures, amino acids in meat react with creatine, forming carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCA). It happens whether you are grilling, frying, or broiling meat. The longer the meat is being cooked, the more heterocyclic amines are formed. The higher the temperature, the more heterocyclic amines. When meat is roasted or baked in the oven, it may contain some, but much less than when grilled, fried, or broiled, because the temperature needed for baking or roasting is lower.

Toxic charcoal

Grilling ads to the problem by exposing meat to the chemicals in the smoke that come from burning coal. These chemicals are also potentially carcinogenic.

Both charcoal and wood produce not only hydrocarbons that are bad for the environment, but also tiny particles of sooth that can seriously affect people with heart and lung problems.

Grilling with charcoal produces an additional carcinogenic compound, besides heterocyclic amines: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH.

According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat from meat drips onto the charcoal. The smoke deposits it on the food, together with the delicious flavor.

National Cancer Institute researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that may present cancer risks, particularly for breast cancer and colorectal cancer.

Both briquettes and charcoal in lumps pollute the air, but the briquettes also have an added bonus: sodium nitrate, limestone, borax and other toxic chemicals that end up on your meat.

What can we do?

Not much scientists can say will deter Americans from their loved grills. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to avoid unwanted carcinogenic chemicals.

Marinating your meat before grilling it is suggested as a way of cut down on the formation of heterocyclic amines. There is no scientific evidence for this, nor there is a recipe for the marinade.

The Harvard Health Letter has a few additional tips:

  • Cut meat in smaller pieces, they get cooked at lower temperature;
  • Choose leaner meat to reduce dripping fat, which creates toxic smoke;
  • Precook your meat in the convection oven or microwave for a few minutes. Just two minutes might decrease the formation of heterocyclic amines by 90 percents.
  • Flip pieces of meat frequently to keep the temperature lower.

Rainforest Alliance”s SmartWood program recommends using natural charcoal made in a sustainable way without any chemicals added. Look for other charcoal labeled as ” Ëœnatural” â„¢ at your local store.

According to the scientific proof, the best barbequed meat is first marinated, then cooked rare or even bloody. It does not matter much whether the grill is charcoal, gas or electrical, but there are a few points against charcoal, which are probably countered by the points charcoal gets for the flavor. So, the debate rages on.


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