The main reason nutrition experts are less than enthusiastic about barbecues is that they generate compounds which are potentially damaging to health.
To start with, the process of barbecuing meat leads to the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), or Maillard reaction products. This occurs when sugars bind to proteins (the famous Maillard reaction), and the resulting AGEs are believed to accelerate the rate at which we age(1). Though AGEs are produced naturally by the body, certain foods can boost their numbers, the biggest dietary sources being animal products cooked at a high temperature (2). And the worst culprit of all is fried bacon!
Barbecuing meat also triggers the release of chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When the cooking temperature exceeds 100ᵒC, creatine, a protein in meat, reacts with Maillard products. This leads to very high concentrations of water-soluble HCAs in meat exudates and juices.
At temperatures above 200°C, the problem is made worse by the addition of other types of HCA formed from the breakdown of amino acids. These HCAs are found in the grilled or charred parts – which, let’s face it, are what gives barbecued meat all its flavour. But however much our tastebuds might object, these substances have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as “probable carcinogens” (3).
There’s another three-letter acronym to be aware of when discussing barbecued meat: PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Also considered carcinogenic, these compounds form in meat heated to a high temperature (4-6), and to make matters worse, they’re also produced by incomplete combustion of wood and charcoal. A full house then, when it comes to taking the shine off any barbecue plans …
Does this mean we have to banish our barbecues to the back of the shed? Not at all. As long as we don’t overdo it, the barbecue can still be a sociable eating occasion to be enjoyed guilt-free, provided we adopt some sensible measures!
When you use a horizontal barbecue, meat juices will inevitably drip onto the heat source, increasing the amount of smoke and formation of PAHs. This doesn’t happen with an electric vertical grill!
But if you want to keep your existing barbecue, make sure you place your meat 10 cm away from the coals to maintain an adequate distance from the fire. It’s also better to cook over glowing embers rather than open flames.
Do you usually prick sausages? When barbecuing, it’s best not to, to minimise the amount of meat juices dripping onto the coals.
Similarly, avoid using meat forks and skewering utensils, and instead use tongs or spatulas to carefully move the meat around. Turning the meat frequently may also reduce HCA formation.
To minimise intake of lipids and fat dripping onto coals, choose lean meats: chicken fillet strips, turkey brochettes, top sirloin steak … If you’re a lover of entrecote (or ribeye), trim as much fat off it as possible before cooking. Thinner pieces of meat are also a good choice as they can be seared quickly, significantly reducing the amount of heat exposure.
To accompany your meat feast, swap those fries for barbecued vegetables. Adding courgettes, peppers, aubergines and mushrooms to your meat-based meal will go a long way to improving its nutritional profile (7). There’s no excuse – interspersed between two pieces of meat on a skewer, you’ll hardly know they’re there!
Marinades not only add flavour and tenderise the meat, but with their many beneficial compounds, they also reduce the formation of harmful substances (especially HCAs) (8). So make liberal use of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, onions and aromatic herbs for a decidedly healthier barbecue experience!
Granted, this is not what you want to hear. But these are the real ‘villains’ of the barbecue. The meat juices and dark charred marks on barbecued meat contain a large proportion of the HCAs and PAHs produced. Despite their moreish flavour, you need to discard them!
For the same reason, make sure you clean your barbecue grill thoroughly after each use (9).
What if Nature could help make our barbecues healthier? Some people aware of harmful glycation processes choose to take specific natural substances such as:
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