May 27, 2008

Fearin' The Flames

[By Crabby]

Memorial Day has come and gone. It's now official (at least in the U.S.): Barbecue Season Has Begun!

This is generally seen as a good thing.

Many Americans enjoy grilled food.

Yes, this is the time of year when 98% of the population says "Yippeeee! Let's fire up the coals and cook us some delicious burgers/dogs/chicken/tofu-veggie kabobs/ostrich patties!"

The other 2% of us? We're the carnivores who love barbecued meat but worry about the HCA's and PAH's.

What are HCA's and PAH's, you might ask?

They're carcinogens. They form when you grill meat. Well-done red meat is particularly problematic.

Carcinogens? Oh dear.

What's the point of stuffing ourselves with boatloads of all those virtuous anti-cancer foods if we're going to cancel out all that virtue with a simple backyard barbecued burger?

All for nothing? Dang!

But I have to confess I LOVE the taste of cancer-burgers and cancer-dogs and cancer-chicken and cancer-steaks. And the mouth-watering smell... How are we meat-eaters supposed to resist that char-grilled aroma when it's hard-wired into our cave-woman and cave-man brains?

(Sorry, all you vegetarians and vegans. But I'm guessing you were long gone at the first sight of that burger picture).

How to deal with this summertime dilemma?

My Previous Barbecue Strategy:

1. Try to limit barbecuing to when we are (a) camping or (b) having company. (Despite the fact that The Lobster* is an excellent and enthusiastic griller of meats).

(*The Lobster=My Significant Other, for those who are new here).

2. When the Lobster is finally permitted to fire up the grill, mention repeatedly at the grocery store (in a whiny voice) that barbecued meats cause cancer. Sigh when approaching the meat counter.

3. Announce that while everyone else might be having steak or burgers, I will make myself have a garden burger or a slab of tofu or a veggie kebab instead. Or maybe at least choose chicken or fish.

4. Think about it some more.

5. Guiltily throw an extra package of burgers and/or steaks into the shopping cart.

6. Once the Evil Meat is cooked, have seconds because it tastes so damn good.

Admittedly, not a particularly effective strategy.

Good thing it turns out there are other ways besides guilt and whining to deal with the grilled meats issue. Who knew? (Well, lots of people apparently, since some of these studies are at least a year old.)

Better Barbecuing Strategies:

1. Marinade! Even a few minutes helps get rid of a whole bunch of the nasty carcinogens, and grocery store dry mixes are apparently fine. This marinade study found marinading reduces HCA's by 87%. The level of reduced HCA's seemed to correlate to the amount of antioxidants present in the marinades.

"The marinade containing rosemary and thyme had the greatest effect on reducing HCAs, but two other marinades with different herbs seasonings were tested and found to be almost as effective. The rosemary/thyme marinade also contained pepper, allspice and salt. Another marinade included oregano, thyme, garlic and onion. A third marinade had oregano, garlic, basil, onion and parsley."

2. Choose wisely: the American Institute of Cancer Research says the grilling of meat is only a small part of the problem--it's what we grill that's getting us in trouble. Because of the link to colorectal cancer, they recommend we limit red meat to 18 ounces a week and avoid processed meats entirely.

3. Pre-cook in the microwave. Then toss out the juice, where a lot of the carcinogens are hiding.

4. Select small cuts of meat, like kebabs.

5. Choose lean cuts of meat and avoid fat dripping on the coals and causing flare-ups.

6. Flip Frequently.

Um, I meant flip the meat.

7. Avoid really high heat: Use a gas grill, or if using charcoal, don't cook meat too close to the coals

8. Don't Cook the Hell out of It. This one doesn't bother me, as I'm a medium-rare kinda gal, but those of you who like your red meat dry and brown and tasteless well done should probably indulge in grilling only "rarely," (so to speak).

So what do you folks do about the 'Q? Just sensible gourmet veggie kebabs, or do you grill up burgers and dogs every chance you get?


  1. Im a horrible HEADINSAND person when it comes to the cancer-providing properties of my grill.

    I marinade (chicken/tuna. I also HEART the shrimp kabobs. and salmon. THANKS, now Im famished) and forget all about it and enjoy.

    M., who is skipping her cardio this morning in favor of some extended family time---all in the name of exercising the LOVE :)

  2. I heard about the PAHs and HCAs in my Chemistry of Food class in 2004 (which was totally awesome and all the lectures synchronised with the slides are available here)

    Frankly, PAHs are found in nearly all cooked food - the browning of toast = PAHs. HCAs are caused by the combination of creatine and amino acids under very high cooking temperatures, so frying and broiling muscle meats is also out - and in the winter months when we can't bbq, I loves me some broiled fish, chicken, steak, etc.

    I try not to worry too much about how I cook my food, as long as I'm not adding much fat to it. I think fat is far more dangerous in terms of cancer causing properties.

    Besides, take a look at Koreans: the Korean grill is famous (and for good freakin' reason! om nom nom!), and Koreans traditionally have a really high rate of stomach cancer. However, so do the Japanese and the Chinese. It turns out it's the high sodium soy sauce that causes the stomach cancer.

    And... if nothing else it'll give me a good reason to eat lots of dark chocolate and drink lots of red wine at the BBQ, in order to pit the anti-oxidants vs the oxidants.

  3. I'm the bbq person in the house - I love a perfectly bbq-ed chunk of steak, grilled chicken, salmon, whatever.

    I also really enjoy grilling veggies that I've marinaded beforehand.

    I begin bbqing as soon as I can dig a path to my bbq until the snow is flying too hard a few months later.

    Plus, bbqing means less clean up in the kitchen. Absolute bonus!

  4. Thank you for the tasty marinade ideas.
    We don't grill very often so when we do I make sure to get all the toothsome carcinogens that I can.
    I eat good, healthy food most of the time so I earn my barbecue.
    Oh, that 18 oz a week business? That's a good size for a steak.

  5. Of COURSE I worry about this, lol! You and I would be really fun at a BBQ together;) One other tip I've heard is to put the stuff on the top rack wrapped in a tinfoil packet so it's being cooked indirectly. Although now that I write that I think, why bother with the grill at all then?

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  6. Gee that would make BBQd ribs a good choice because they're simmered first and only need a few minutes on the grill.. turned frequently. Thanks for the menu idea for tonight!

  7. In south Louisiana we cook outside pretty much year round, so we limit it to once every two weeks with an alternating menu. Ever since Number Two Son took over the grill at age 9 (3 years ago, well supervised then, totally on his own now), I have been tempted to keep the kitchen cool and let him do his thing daily! We'd get heartily sick of it after a while, but it would be fun to have the time off.

    We even cook frozen fries on the grill, and I put the cast iron pot out there sometimes to let the smoke flavor blend with the beans or stew or whatever is in the pot. Often I will have him grill a few extra items for use later in the week -- chicken fajitas at home taste much better when the meat was grilled a couple of days ago, refrigerated, and pulled out to be warmed in a good fajita marinade.


    PS love your blog, though I don't often take time to comment.

  8. Thanks for the info! I love me my bbq with some tasty red meat:)

  9. Crabby,

    I really try never to cook but when someone else barbecues, I am first on line. And I buy grilled salmon and grilled veggies in the specialty store all the time.

    I wish I could say that eating grilled food is the most health careless thing I've ever done, but (sigh) it's not.

    Hope you enjoyed your days off.


  10. [whine] But I don't want my lovely red meat messed up with flavors! I want it to taste like MEAT! [/whine]
    Before I moved to this house I cooked outdoors about twice a month. I've set the grill up and cooked once here--the first summer I lived here. There's just nowhere even slightly convenient to do that, and I discovered that in a downstairs with four ceiling fans, the kitchen stays comfortable even when you cook for hours.
    Now when we finally get moved to the new house, with a porch outside the kitchen, I'll probably try it again.
    I do use thyme a lot with chicken and fish (two pots of it by the front door, so it can move with me) but with beef, I don't want anything but the beef flavor.
    Thanks to my new post-menopausal cholesterol levels, I'm trying to cut down on animal protein as a whole, but I'm not worrying about cancer, too.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky, where my local grocery sells lard in five gallon buckets (as well as smaller quantities)

  11. I looooove me some cancer burgers.
    And chicken and anything else I can char on the flames. I might die from overexposure to HCA's and PAH's...and if I do, it will have been worth it.

  12. I agree with Christine. PAHs are in pretty much any food heated to high temperatures.HCAs are created by high cooking temps too, but what can you do if you want to cook your food? I had a prof actually go on a rant about it, saying unless we wanted a raw food diet, or boil everything, there's little way to avoid inhaling all those carcinogens from cooking meat and other foods. I mean acrylamide from frying. You just have to try and be reasonable about it...
    I figure I'll focus on not eating chemicals ro processed food, because, well, I like cooked food...especooked food...and grilled food. Eeez nice...tasty.

  13. sorry...all that thinking of grilled meat has removed my ability to type...

  14. I once had an entire summer where my oven/stove were kaput so I cooked every single thing we ate on the grill. Once I heard the news about the HCA, PAH, etc. I figured I'd alredy done too much damage so we grill on. Year round. I am really good at marinating though.

  15. Occasionally real grill, mostly plants, not too much :-)

    Dr. J

  16. I know, I know, grilling meat can be carcinogenic. But, I love it so and willing to shed a few years off my life for it.

  17. Your post was fantastic, but I am going to pretend I never read it. I can't BBQ to save my life, so when the room mates or the BF offer to do it for dinner I whole-heartedly agree. PAHs are a small price to pay for a night off from the stove. Mmmmm, now I want a mushroom-soy burger.

  18. we grilled last nite for the FIRST TIME - not kidding - in four years, which is when we received the grill as a wedding present. For some reason, the silvery beast intimidated us. Anyways, we made chicken and veggies which were great and then my husband scraped a piece off that was a little charred because I believe he's read about the cancer correlation and I was still hungry and ate it, moaning, "Mmmm, yummm, cancer chicken!" And then I felt really, really guilty for making such a comment.

  19. So, does this mean that all the cavemen died of stomach cancer?
    Humans have been flame-cooking their meat since the beginning of time. And it tastes darned good, too.
    *Sticks head back into sand*

  20. Is this going to make my tofu de beast carcinogenic too??

  21. hhmmmm...grilled salmon *drools* I was watching the news last week and someone was demonstrating grilled salad. weird. you actually throw the lettuce on the grill for about 30 seconds...

  22. Good to know about the marinades! I'll keep that in mind in case we ever have a grill.

    I'm with Christine - more reason to drink wine and eat chocolate!

  23. Wow, 18 oz a week? I can't afford to eat that much red meat.

    I'm guessing that if you isolated a group of people from all carcinogens except those found in grilled meat, none of them would have cancer. (Of course this would have to be done from birth and the first generation wouldn't count)

    It is a tiny factor combined with the smog, the teflon coating, the chemicals used to wash your clothes and make your house smell fresh. The off gassing of your carpets and the glues that hold your lino down, the chemicals that were sprayed to control weeds for decades on the plot of ground where you now get your "organic" veggies. All of these things combine to make cancer. Yes, you can make smarter choices, you can lobby the Gov't to make smarter choices too.

    You have to eat and breath to live, so you may as well enjoy grilled meat now and then.

    Sorry, I sort of lost control.

  24. Crabby, you crack me up! That was the most entertaining grilling post ever...

    Personally, I like a good turkey burger or chicken hot dog, but I do try to limit the red meat. And when we do steak, we're big on marinating.

  25. Sorry... no useful comment... I lost my concentration at the comment about "5-gallon containers of lard" ye gads and little fishies

  26. I used to think (growing up) that BBQ meant hotdogs and hamburgers.

    But I've learned (having participated in several Japanese BBQs), that vegetables make wonderful grilled/BBQd meals. Yummy. Now I have a new view on BBQ...

  27. What Reb said!

    My little Weber Q is my BUDdy! He gets me out of the kitchen, sort of. I grill Albacore steaks (yum, mercury) on a bed of damp fresh cut rosemary (rub a little toasted sesame oil on the fish first), ribeye steaks, baby back ribs, and sometimes chicken which is easier to just fry in a big cast iron pan. For veggies it's potato planks, zuchinni slabs, Spanish onions, portabello mushroom slices, cherry tomatoes, green onions, elephant garlic, and the best: asparagus! Yum! (I'm going to try artichokes when they are not $6 each).
    Forget the tofu, THAT is the stuff that will kill you, go check up on it, 'tis not fit for man nor beast.

  28. Confession: I BBQ 12 months of the year and 4-5 days/week in Spring/Summer.

    I'm glad to hear that about the marinades because nowadays you can't hardly afford a good porterhouse or rib eye anyhow. So you might as well marinade a lesser cut and still savour that mmm-good BBQ flavour.

    I also prefer to marinade lean cuts like chicken breasts. They're still juicy even if cooked through. (And yes, we cook our chicken and burgers through - steak & lamb med/rare - pork, medium.)

    Kebabs are a fave with me because how much more basic can you get than meat on a stick? I mean, really. You can't. It's how God meant us to eat.

  29. You folks succeeded in making me very, very hungry!

    Christine, thanks for the info--wow, you really know your stuff!

    And Mary Anne, I always thought Lard-Bucket was just a figure of speech, but then I've never lived in Kentucky!

    MessyMimi, you have a son who was barbecuing back when he was 9? How handy is that! Maybe I should have thought about having crablets after all. Though no doubt I'd get the kind of kid who was just as lazy as I am. Thanks for stopping by!

    Bag lady, I think most of the cavemen died well before stomach cancer would have a chance to set in! But I can't resist the grilled meat. Fortunately, I like marinade.

    Missicat, grilled salad? That's just too weird!

    And Frank, it does not surprise me at all that you are a Barbecue Guy, and I bet you're good at it, too. Some day I'm gonna land on your doorstep and fight Benny for the leftovers.

  30. I <3 the grill and totally agree with Christine about pitting the oxidants against delicious antioxidants like red wine, dark chocolate and red peppers. I use a gas grill and when I eat red meat, we cook it only until it's warm and pink in the middle. I have no idea if that helps me or not.. I've totally lost track of the "rules".

  31. ooh, charcoal-grilled almost anything, yum! (wood-fired just as good especially if someone else cooks) Have made pizza, grilled fruit (pineapple especially - try w/ a honey/balsamic glaze), fries (the frozen ones come out a bit soggy for me, must be doing something wrong). One of the absolute best Thanksgiving turkeys I've ever had was cooked all day on a charcoal grill. Sigh. Don't knock the ostrich burgers - they're very tasty, as is buffalo (really bison) which is nowhere near as lean as ostrich in the ground versions. They're both "better" (in the less-bad sense) for you than regular beef, and grass-fed beef is better than regular also. Now I feel the need for s'mores, and here I am living in a place I can't grill!

  32. Summer wouldn't be summer without the BBQ! I know it can be bad for you, but at least you don't have to fry your meat in a bunch of oil when you put it on the grill--there is a bit of a healthy angle too!

  33. I have had a gas grill for nearly 25 years, the advantage of which is that I grill year round. Now living in California, I grill about 3-4 times a week. Sometimes 2 times a day.

    I cook everything on the grill, though personally I don't eat most sausages (and hotdogs are only consumed at the baseball park). I grill beef, pork, chicken, lamb, fish, veggies, fruits and breads.

    During a long power outage, I even baked a cake on my grill!

    I don't worry about the carcinogenic effect.

  34. Thanks for your great post on grilling and the risk of cancer. Just like everything in life, moderation is key. There is only an increased risk of cancer when excessive amounts are consumed and cooked at high temperatures.


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