Alfresco Dining: BBQs – what ’s the verdict?


Kerry Torrens BSc, DipION, Nutritional therapist and health writer

Year of publication: 

 We’ve all read the headlines suggesting that meat eaters have higher incidence of cancer, in particular breast and colon cancer. We are now also discovering that this risk further increases when consumption is combined with high temperature cooking such as in barbecuing or char-grilling. You might think you’re being healthy by choosing white meat over red meat. However, evidence suggests that it makes little difference whether you are barbecuing red meat, poultry or seafood as it’s the amino acids and creatine found in these muscle meats which react at high temperatures to form carcinogenic compounds.

Such compounds include heterocyclic amines (HCA), powerful mutagens first identified in the 1970s. Although not free radicals themselves HCAs provoke free radical production. Other compounds such as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed when fats from the meat or fish drip onto hot coals creating smoke which deposits these harmful substances on the outer surface of the cooked food. Studies have linked high consumption of meats cooked at high temperatures to increased risk of developing gastric, prostate and breast cancers. In fact, frequent consumption of well-done meats, as opposed to those cooked rare, influences risk by as much as 3.5 times.

The good news

Although the evidence against barbecues appears compelling, the good news is that there are strategies which are effective in minimising the potential health risk. These include avoiding the use of additional fats such as olive oil or butter which have the potential to double HCA production. Incorporating protective foods which are rich in antioxidants and reducing both the cooking temperature and time are important protective measures.

Practical solutions

Pre-cooking meats prior to barbecuing goes some way towards reducing levels of creatine as well as minimising the overall cooking time, both of which reduce HCA formation. There are numerous studies supporting the protective benefits of marinating meat and fish with some reports citing a reduction in HCA formation by as much as 90%. This is because marinades act as a seal protecting the meat from extreme temperatures. Marinades also start the cooking process which minimises barbecuing time. By including ingredients rich in polyphenols such as gingerol found in ginger, curcumin found in turmeric and carnosic acid found in rosemary, the marinade serves as a useful means of supplying antioxidant protection, which is of course invaluable in the fight against free radicals. The ideal marinade should be thin in consistency, made from a base of cider vinegar, lemon juice, red wine or even beer. Add to this a combination of herbs and spices such as rosemary, garlic, mustard, soy, turmeric or ginger. Side salads, salsas and dips are not just a feast for the eyes and stomach but another useful means of incorporating protective antioxidants including carotenoids like lycopene found in tomatoes and flavonoids like quercetin present in red onions. These phyto-chemicals inhibit HCA production and protect against free radical damage. Don’t restrict these to side dishes. Include them along with the meat and fish during the cooking process, for example on skewers. By doing this the moisture they contribute further minimises the meat’s exposure to high temperatures. Ideal choices include cherry tomatoes, red onion, sweet potato, peppers, citrus fruits, pineapple and papaya, supplying more protective flavonoids as well as antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. Soy similarly inhibits HCA production through its contribution of protective flavonoids. So consider coating lean meat burgers or steaks in a light dusting of soy flour before placing on the grill. Interesting studies have reported the anti-mutagenic benefits of lactic acid strains of bacteria which are found in fermented dairy produce such as natural yoghurt. This works well as a low fat replacement for mayonnaise in potato salad and coleslaw. A yogurt dressed coleslaw can also supply additional protection. This is because it typically contains cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage along with onions, garlic and chives. These families of vegetables speed up our elimination of harmful compounds including HCAs through their induction of phase II liver detoxification. Similar benefits may be achieved by finishing your barbecued meal with a cup of green tea or iced black tea, both of which are rich in catechins which also support detoxification pathways.

Minimise exposure

Clearly, it is unrealistic to totally eliminate compounds such as HCAs from our food but what we can do is take practical steps to minimise our exposure. This summer as you dust off the barbecue vow to select your meat and fish carefully; consider pre-cooking them; place on the grill far enough away from the heat source or flame and include a bounty of protective foods as main ingredients, marinades and side dishes.

FOOD, mutagens, HCAs, phyto-chemicals
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