Barbecue Safely and Nutritiously.

Barbeque by Agman small

Independence Day is here!  The official start of summer in Western Washington—okay, I know it’s the day after July 4th, but work with me here.  Warm temperatures…cool clothes and parades.  Maybe a first visit to the water.  That means most people are barbecuing somewhere in the United States to celebrate the founding of our country.  Good times and good food.  The question is:  How many people are barbecuing safely?

While I don’t have an answer to that question, I can talk about unsafe barbecuing.  What is unsafe barbecuing?  Unsafe barbecuing is when high heat cooking produces a large amount of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are ingested and are mutagenic and carcinogenic; this means they change DNA and have the potential to cause cancer.

Where do HCAs come from?  Now there are good HCAs and bad HCAs.  The good HCAs are needed for your body to function and are found in certain vitamins like B1, B12 and niacin.  You want to keep those kinds of HCAs close and eat them every day.  The bad HCAs are the ones created during the barbecue process.  Cooking animal flesh over high heat for a long period of time, which is what many Americans will be doing, produces the bad HCAs.  Anything with amino acids (the essential components in protein) and creatine—these components are needed to build our muscles—and sugars that is subject to high heat over a long period of time will contain a high amount of HCAs.  The creatine and amino acids transform into HCAs as a result of the high heat.  The amount of HCAs depends on temperature, type of cooking and the length of time to cook.  We’ll go over that later.

Where do PAHs come from?  There are naturally-occurring PAHs in coal, tar and crude oil and can be found in the air, water and soil.  During the cooking process, it is the meat whose fat and juices drip onto the flame, which contains PAHs and flares up and touches the meat.  Once the flame touches the meat, the PAHs land on the meat.  They are also found in smoked meats, any foods that have been charred, cigarette smoke and car exhaust.  Mmmmm,,,Tasty!

Now do you see why barbecuing can be unsafe?  There are two processes involved in barbecuing that produce two types of chemical compounds and can be unsafe.  This, of course, does not include the dangers of the inappropriate use of lighter fluid, starting forest fires, etc.  Although, I hope you are careful with barbecuing on these matters as well.

I don’t want to scare you.  Just be aware of what is going on.  We are exposed to these chemicals all the time.  The risk of getting cancer varies from person to person.  It depends on your lifestyle and your environment.  Reducing the amount of HCAs and PAHs that can affect you is how you make your barbecue safer.

For more information about HCAs and PAHs, take a look at this link from the CDC:

Here’s another link that goes into much more detail about prevention:

Let’s go to Food Stuff to see how to barbecue safely.

Food Stuff

As a young girl with a little sister and many other family members around, I always enjoyed running around to test the season.  It really was true.  Playing outside, while the grownups cooked outside and watched us play.  We could show these old people what we could do (scream, laugh, do cartwheels) or what we discovered, which we wouldn’t have been able to do inside.  I wasn’t a screamer.  I never found that useful.  I actually found it irritating if some kid did it too often. You can’t be good at Hide-n-Seek if you scream all the time.

Safety was always a priority around the barbecue.  “Stay away from the grill, so you don’t burn yourself.” and “Watch where you’re going.” were two instructions that were given to the kids, I remember.  I didn’t need those instructions.  I was already safety conscious—probably coming out of the womb.

There are ways to eat to neutralize the HCAs.  Add lots of color to the table.  Fruits and vegetables are perfect for taking on this task.  They contain lots of antioxidants that work hard to protect you.  Watermelon, berries and oranges are abundant this time of year, so eat up!  A fresh, green salad with Romaine lettuce, arugula, spinach, tomatoes and pistachio nuts goes with any barbecue.  One research study found that when frying beef, pyridoxamine, a form of vitamin B6, actually inhibited the formation of HCAs by nearly 40%.  Pyridoxamine has been touted as a life-prolonging compound.  Tuna, turkey, beef, chicken and salmon have the highest amounts of vitamin B6.  There are many vegetarian options that are high in B6:  sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, prunes, avocadoes, cooked spinach, baked potatoes with the skin and bananas.  Don’t fill up on the meat.  Eat more of the vegetarian varieties of B6 to counteract HCAs.

When grilling, you can prevent the HCAs from developing and PAHs from getting on your food.  Here are the steps to take:

  • Use a gas grill and avoid the charcoal.
  • If you use charcoal, use natural charcoal, which does not have all the additives to help speed up lighting of the fire and to keep the fire burning longer.
  • If you marinate the meat for 30 minutes before you start grilling, the number of HCAs will be considerably reduced.  A good marinade will also add a nice flavor to the meat.
  • Cook the meat in less time than well done, if possible.  At least, do not let the meat cook to that charred state.  The longer meat is cooked, the greater the number of HCAs.  It increases by 10-fold from rare to well done.  It is not to say you must make the meat rare.  Just avoid cooking the meat “to death.”  It shouldn’t look like it has been stuck in a forest fire for days or burnt like Daffy Duck after having been blasted by a shot gun.
  • Turn the meat more frequently to prevent the one side from overheating.
  • Trim the fat on the meat to reduce the amount of drippings on the fire.
  • Put items on the grill besides hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs, chicken, lamb and fish.  Fruit and veggies are great alternatives.  When they are grilled, they do not produce HCAs, because in order to produce HCAs, the source must be made of protein.

Have a great, safe Fourth of July!

In Good Food We Trust,



The views and opinions in this blog do not necessarily represent those of the SouthSoundCommunityGuide. We do however value your opinion.

Renee Paden About Renee Paden

Renée graduated with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University in 2010, after over 20 years in the IT corporate world. Her first nutrition teacher was her grandmother, who showed her how to prepare a balanced plate. Renée spent hours in the kitchen with her grandmother, learning the importance of our relationship with food. She wants everyone to understand how urgent it is for our families to appreciate real food. Our lives depend on it, literally.

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