A combination of smoke and direct flame contact with the food increases the cancer risk, alongside the type of food we tend to cook on the barbie
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As we continue to bask in the summer heat wave, thousands of us are enjoying outdoor cooking on barbecues.
But while most people worry only about a drop of rain spoiling their fun, scientists raise a much bigger concern: that eating barbecued meat, fish or poultry could cause cancer.
So, how much should we worry?
In recent years, a growing body of research has found cooking meat over a flame increases our exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens known as PAHs and HCAs.
These can damage the DNA in our genes, possibly leading to skin, liver, stomach and other types of cancer.
One study at Minnesota University, US, found that people who ate well-done meat cooked at very high temperatures were 60% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
While this risk also applies to other high-heat cooking techniques such as frying and grilling, PAHs and HCAs are caused by a combination of smoke and direct flame contact with the food, so barbecuing poses more of a risk.
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The type of meat we tend to eat at barbecues poses a problem, too.
A higher consumption of burgers is associated with a 79% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
Processed red meat, such as ribs and sausages, has been linked to digestive cancers. The meat itself is a risk but the concern is also partly due to the chemicals used to preserve these products.
Jessica Kirby, of Cancer Research UK, says: “There is some evidence to suggest cooking meat at high temperatures, such as barbecuing, can create chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer.
“There are still questions about how much impact this has on people’s overall risk.
“There’s also strong evidence linking red and processed meat to higher risks of bowel cancer, so it’s a good idea to limit the amount you eat by opting for smaller portions or eat alternatives, such as fish and chicken.”
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The build-up of carcinogens happens in one of three ways when we barbecue – by the surface of the food becoming contaminated by smoke, through the breakdown of fat, protein and carbohydrate as the food cooks, or as fat drips from the meat or poultry on to the hot embers and causes a chemical reaction.
The third is by far the most common because the dripping fat also produces more smoke. So, the less fat meat has on it, the better.
Cooking over natural gas or propane grills reduces the pollution emitted, so is much safer. But, of course, it doesn’t give the food that traditional smoky flavour.
When coal is smouldering at its hottest and we cook on it, the smoke emitted contains poisonous gases, such as carbon monoxide and PAHs.
Breathing in too much of it can be harmful to the lungs. It’s no coincidence that cigarette smoke also contains PAHs. When ingested, the PAHs go directly to our cells.
Unlike meat, vegetables don’t create carcinogens when they char as the formation of HCAs depends on the presence of creatine, which is mostly found in muscle tissue. The lack of fat also means there are no flare-ups that can create smoke.
You can reduce PAHs on meat and fish by scraping the black bits off and the amount of HCAs by cooking food until it’s done, not blackened.
Jessica adds: “There are other things that help. Part-cooking larger items such as chicken pieces in a microwave or oven means less time on a barbecue. It’s one way of reducing charring.”
Another is to marinate the food in alcohol before barbecuing it. According to research published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, soaking meat in a marinade of beer – especially stout or black beer – reduces the creation of PAHs when it’s grilled by around 50%.
Well-done meat at high temperatures – increase in pancreatic cancer
High consumption of burgers – increase in advanced prostate cancer
Leaving it in a bowlful of beer in the fridge overnight also tenderises the meat and gives it a lovely flavour. Wine or tea marinades also provide added protection against carcinogens.
Although it’s not known why, one theory is the antioxidant compounds in these drinks act as inhibitors.
Overall, Cancer Research UK, which launched a campaign this summer encouraging the public to hold fund-raising barbecues, believes barbecuing is safe, as long as people are sensible.
Jessica says: “The occasional burnt sausage is unlikely to have a major impact on your cancer risk if it’s part of a healthy, balanced diet, so you can still enjoy a good British barbecue.”
How to have a healthier barbecue
Lower the temperature on your gas grill to prevent meat from burning. Ideally, use a barbecue that has a temperature control dial
Marinate your meat to create a barrier between it and the formation of HCAs
Use a smokeless BBQ with a built-in battery-powered fan such as the Lotus Grill (available at cuckooland.com ) to stop the BBQ from smoking and prevent carcinogens from being inhaled
Switch to seafood, which typically forms fewer HCAs than meat and requires a shorter cooking time
Opt for leaner meats and trim any fat off before grilling to reduce dripping and flame flare-ups
Cut down on grill time by oven-roasting or pan-searing meat first
Clean your grill after use to avoid transferring leftover chemicals
Cut meat into smaller portions to reduce cooking time and flip food over frequently
If you do nothing else, pick off the burnt bits before eating