This time of year invariably brings questions about grilling and barbequing. Which is why I thought it appropriate to dust off this oldie but goodie. This article originally appeared in the Tampa Tribune, which was acquired by The Tampa Times in 2016. Although a few years old, all the comments still ring true.
I was disturbed the other day. Well, folks tell me I am a bit disturbed every day, but the other day bothered me in particular. Yet again, I read some alarmist news that barbequing foods leads to cancer. Within the realm of barbeque, according to the commentary, all forms were equally culpable. This included grilling, which is cooking food quickly over high; it’s what gives a grilled steak that unmistakable roasted, slightly charred primal yumminess. Think of cooking with your oven broiler, but in reverse where the heat source is on the bottom. The charges were also levied against smoking meat, which is not at all like smoking cigarettes or inappropriate vulgar references better left to more adult publications. It involves a process the exact opposite of grilling; it is the use of smoke and heat to cook food low and slow. It yields that Southern gift to humanity, commonly referred to as pork barbeque.
These techniques have both been around almost as long as Homo erectus. Professor Richard Wrangham in his most excellent book, Catching Fire, describes how the singular act of harnessing fire to cook was perhaps the single most important human advancement that propelled us forward and upward upon the evolutionary path. While grilling and roasting were likely the earliest culinary uses of fire, using smoke to preserve foodstuffs was not far behind. These traditions of our forebears have not abated in more modern times. In 2010 in the US alone, more than 15 million grills and smokers were shipped out to stores to meet demand and eighty-two percent of US households own a grill or smoker. Yet the love affair stretches beyond our own backyards. A recent university study out of Las Vegas estimate that over $15 billion dollars annually is spent dining out to consume barbeque in all its smoky and seductive forms. In many areas of the world, grilling and smoking remain a primary means to prepare and preserve a variety of foodstuffs. The smell of smoke and roasting meats calls to all humanity at a very primordial level; it’s a cellular memory.
A question the microwave generation asks is if this ancient preparatory method is not only outdated, but is it killing us? One-third of consumers think that grilling is healthier than food cooked in the kitchen, while almost another two-thirds (sixty-three percent) view it as just as healthy. It is interesting to note from an observational and epidemiological point of view, many indigenous peoples around the world still grill their food to eat it and smoke it for preservation purposes. These populations generally are extremely healthy with much lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes than those consuming a typical Western (highly processed) diet.
One of the main concerns raised about grilling and smoking stems from a potential increased risk of cancer. Grilling over high heat can increase the level of heterocyclic amines (HA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) found in food. These compounds only potentially increase in grilled foods when meat and fish are grilled, not when veggies and fruit are grilled. However, HA compounds can also form when proteins (like meat and fish) are broiled or fried. Although the major source of HA does come from cooked foods, the risk appears less than minimal. A study done at the University of California estimated the upper level increased cancer risk from HA coming from cooked food to be 0.011%.[i] Those are the same odds that you will be injured by a toilet this year or you will find a four-leaf clover on the first try. It is only a little less likely than the odds of you winning an Academy Award (1 in 11,500 for the aspiring actors in the group).
The PAH form when juices from meat or fish hit a hot surface and are carried back to the proteins in the form of smoke, permeating the food. Despite a significant number of studies, there remains no definitive link to grilling or smoking food and cancer in humans. The American Cancer Society agrees, stating that “there has not been enough definitive research.” Part of the problem is that compounds like PAH are produced by volcanoes, cigarettes, and car exhaust. They can be found in cereals, fruits, vegetables, cow and human breast milk, and even in some drinking water sources, to name a few. As for the studies that claim to show an increased cancer risk from these compounds in animal studies, the experimental method was flawed. The governmental source, the National Cancer Institute recognized that “the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were very high—equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet.”[ii]
Steven Raichlen one of the foremost grilling experts in the US, host of the long running television series Primal Grill on PBS and author of numerous books including Planet Barbecue and How to Grill (web site www.barbecuebible.com), agrees. He notes that as a primary method of cookery for millennia, if “grilling were truly harmful, we wouldn’t be here.” The risk, in his experience, is “negligible. “ The data supports his conclusion-plus he makes the grilled and smoked food just so darn irresistibly tasty!
So what are we to make of that ageless story of when boy meets grill? Let Nature take its course: smoke’em if ya got’em.
[i] (Layton DW, 1995)
[ii] (National Cancer Institute, 2010)
Layton DW, B. K. (1995). Cancer risk of heterocyclic amines in cooked foods: an analysis and implications for research. Carcinogenesis., Jan;16(1):39-52.
National Cancer Institute. (2010, October 15). Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Retrieved from National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cooked-meats