What’s So Bad (Good) About…Barbecue?

What’s So Bad (Good) About…Barbecue?

I have to say, when I began thinking about this post I was totally depressed. Who wants to hear (during Barbecue Week no less) that grilling causes cancer? Not me, that’s for sure,  I have a very intimate relationship with each and every one of my posts.  (I brought home 12 boxes of cereal the week I wrote about cereal, and I haven’t had a tin of soup since my salt post). I really did not want to write that my cute little blue Weber BBQ out back was going to give me and my children colon cancer. But duty called, and so I began my research.

And my depression quickly gave way to…hilarity.  I began with a google search, wanting to know what the Canadian Cancer Society thinks about barbeque grilling.  So, I entered: “Canadian Cancer Society and BBQ.”  Turns out, they think it’s a pretty good way to fundraise. Here is a small sample of the top hits my google search yielded.

From the Peterborough Examiner:
 “Canadian Cancer Society thanks volunteers with awards, barbecue”

On the Canadian Cancer Society Website:
Cops for Cancer BBQ!!!

And then there was the Sears Cancer Awareness BBQ in Brampton or the Barrie Cares BBQ Challenge to raise $ for Prostate Cancer. The tag line?  “Get Grilling!”

While there’s obviously nothing funny about cancer, you have to admit, there would never be a Smoke ‘em if You’ve Got ‘em fundraiser advertised on the Canadian Cancer Society’s website.

So is there anything all that bad about barbecue?

It’s a bad news/good news answer.  The bad news: when one barbecues there tends to be two things at play – high heat and smoke – both of which produce carcinogens.  Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) is a carcinogen that develops in meat when cooked at very high temperatures (this includes broiling and frying as well).  HCAs are responsible for such things as colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, mammary and prostate cancers.

The second carcinogen, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are found in the smoke. Often when we barbecue, fat from the meat drips onto the coals creating smoke which coats the meat. We in turn ingest not only that lovely smokey flavour but the carcinogen as well.

But fear not.  Here’s the good news:  there are very simple steps you can take to minimize exposure to these carcinogens while enjoying the summer as it should be – outside – with a beer in one hand and a very long metal spatula in the other.

J. Scott Smith, a Kansas State University food chemistry professor, (Science Daily, May 18, 2010) found that adding spices high in antioxidants to meat can significantly reduce HCAs (up to 40%). “Smith’s research team investigated six spices — cumin, coriander seeds, galangal, fingerroot, rosemary and tumeric — and found that the latter three had the highest levels of antioxidant activity toward inhibiting the formation of HCAs, with rosemary as the most effective.” Other studies have shown that marinating meat can reduce the formation of HCA’s. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends marinating for at least 10 minutes. The thinking here is that the molecular structure of protein is altered by acids in the marinade and will inhibit HCA production.

There may be some debate as to the effectiveness of herbs, spices or marinades on  their effectiveness at preventing carcinogens from forming,  but the following tips seem to be widely accepted as good practice and using marinades with herbs and spices just sounds delish.


Longer grilling time is associated with higher HSCs
Select smaller cuts of boneless meats
Precook the meat, drain juices and then head out to the barbeque

Use a higher rack if you have that option
Let coals cool to a glow
If using gas – turn the heat down
Turn the meat frequently, be sure not to burn or char
Remove any blackened bits

Trim the fat or use lean cuts of meat
Use a higher rack, never close the lid – allow the smoke to escape
Use very little oil in your marinades, or none at all


A little more bad news for you beef lovers out there. According to Smith, “Cooked beef tends to develop more HCAs than other kinds of cooked meats such as pork and chicken…Cooked beef patties appear to be the cooked meat with the highest mutagenic activity and may be the most important source of HCAs in the human diet.”

The good news? Grilling vegetables and fruits produce none of the same nasty elements. Grilling is considered a low fat way to cook. And the Canadian Cancer Society says, by following healthy grilling techniques like the ones outlined above, you can reduce carcinogens by up to 90%.

I don’t know about you, but I think I can live with that.

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  1. Natalee
    June 06, 09:58 Reply

    I’m Ok with it but I LOVE the blackened bits! And I’m not OK with precooking and draining the juices.

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