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BBQ

The backyard grill

Where bad things happen to good food

Last Updated July 23, 2007

As the spring sun loosens winter's icy grip across the country, many Canadian eyes and palates turn to the backyard, where — beneath a weather-beaten weather-proof cover — sits the backyard grill.

Once the grilling surface has been cleaned and the propane tank refilled (not necessary for those who rely on charcoal as their heat source) the device is ready for the purpose it was intended: making perfectly good food dangerous to your health.

That's right. Your grill is a veritable chemical factory, able to facilitate the formation of hazardous substances as high cooking temperatures come into contact with animal matter.

Now, you may not be exposed if you're a practitioner of traditional barbecue, which is the slow cooking of meats over indirect heat. The coals — or other heat sources — are normally moved to the side and the meat is placed away from the heat. But most Canadians grill their food in the backyard — on a grill, directly above the heat source.

Here are a few things that your grill can add to your food:

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs are a group of more than 100 different chemicals formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, tobacco and charbroiled meat — your basic backyard barbecue flare-up that leaves the meat charred on the outside and barely cooked on the inside.

You also create PAHs when you burn a piece of toast.

Some PAHs are manufactured, existing as colourless, white or pale yellow-green solids and are found in coal tar, crude oil, creosote and roofing tar. A few are used in medicines or to make dyes, plastics and pesticides.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that some PAHs may reasonably be expected to be carcinogenic. Mice fed high levels of one PAH during pregnancy had difficulty reproducing, as did their offspring.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)

HCAs are carcinogenic chemicals formed from the cooking of muscle meats such as beef, pork, fowl, and fish. HCAs form when amino acids and creatine (a chemical found in muscles) react at high cooking temperatures — like those reached inside your fired up backyard grill.

Researchers have identified 17 different HCAs resulting from the cooking of muscle meats that may pose human cancer risk. These chemicals are created during most types of high temperature cooking. Four factors influence HCA formation: type of food, cooking method, temperature and cooking time.

HCAs are found primarily in cooked muscle meats. Other sources of protein — including milk, eggs, tofu, and organ meats such as liver — have very little or no HCA content naturally or when cooked.

Frying, broiling, and barbecuing produce the largest amounts of HCAs because the meats are cooked at very high temperatures.

Advanced glycation end products

Advanced glycation end products — AGEs — are toxins that are produced and absorbed into the body when meat or cheese is cooked at high temperatures, or foods are sterilized or pasteurized. When AGEs build up in the body, oxidative stress — damage linked to aging — results.

Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York say the toxins contribute to cardiovascular and kidney disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

AGE levels tend to be higher in older people, whose bodies have less ability to remove the chemicals. But the researchers also found that levels were also high in people who ate food rich in the compounds.

Dioxins

While backyard grilling won't add dioxins to your food, it may release them in the air. A 2003 French study found that the typical two-hour backyard barbecue can release the same level of dioxins as 220,000 cigarettes.

Minimizing your risk

There are several precautions you can take to minimize your exposure to these possible cancer-causing compounds. You can steam, boil or stew that fillet mignon. You could choose thin cuts of lean meat, poultry, or fish, and grill them quickly and not too close to the heat. Stay away from well-done meat on the grill.

Another option is to pre-cook your food in a microwave oven for two minutes. This can reduce HCA content by 90 per cent.

Adding other ingredients — like fruit or soy — can reduce up to 95 per cent of HCA formation. Try adding half a cup of soy mixture or a cup of ground, fresh cherries to a half a kilo of ground meat when you make your burgers.

Avoid thick barbecue sauces. The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that a teriyaki marinade reduced HCAs by 67 per cent. A turmeric-garlic sauce slashed levels by 50 per cent. When a thick, concentrated commercial barbecue sauce was used, it tripled levels of HCAs.

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The backyard grill
Where bad things happen to good food

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External Links

Canadian Barbecue Association
BBQ recipes from Ron Shewchuk's website

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