I welcome the opportunity the summer weather occasionally to let the caveman out in me through the stoking up of the barbecue for the cooking of flesh-based foods. I believe this particular form of alfresco eating appeals to my most basic instincts, but am also aware that it is not without risk: it is well known that the eating of char-grilled foods is associated with an increased risk of several forms of cancer, including those of the colon and stomach. So, while barbecuing may be in keeping with our primal past, there seems to be inherent hazards in the taking of burnt offerings.
American scientists have recently put this burning issue down to a group of compounds known as heterocylic amines (HCAs) – potentially cancer-causing chemicals that form as a result of the action of heat on meat and other foods. HCAs are formed as a result of the action of heat on amino acids (the building blocks of protein) during the cooking process. Studies show that the higher the heat applied to a food, the greater the amount of HCAs that form as a result. While many foods are believed to have at least some capacity to liberate HCAs, it is meat that has the greatest potential in this respect, mainly on account of its high-protein nature and the searing heat that is often used to cook it.
Fortunately, a few culinary tricks may help reduce the risk of us playing with fire. One of these is to keep cooking temperature relatively low. There’s a lot to be said for controllable gas-fired barbecuing in this respect. However, if charcoal briquettes are the fuel of choice it will help to ensure that these are kept a good distance from the food. There’s always a risk with barbecues that liquefied fat from meat will ignite once it drips onto the hot coals. The flames that can result have an intense heat that is very likely to boost HCA levels, especially if they come in direct contact with the food. Dousing such flames with water or beer will help ensure that not too much damage is done.
How meat is prepared prior to cooking may also have some impact on it propensity to form HCAs. As a general rule, thinner cuts of meat are preferred because, compared to inch-thick steaks, these tend to cook more quickly. Recent evidence suggests that certain marinades can affect HCA formation too: while those based on honey have been shown to boost HCA levels, teriyaki dressing and marinades containing turmeric and garlic have been shown to exert a protective effect.
Another tactic that may be employed to reduce the cancer-causing potential of barbecued meat is to eat it with something that is likely to help counter any adverse effect in the body. Salad, for instance, will provide folate and so-called carotenoid nutrients that are linked with a reduced risk of several cancers, including those of the stomach and colon. When barbecuing meat, some care in its cooking and a salad accompaniment can help to reduce the risk of us suffering any ill-effect from a sizzling summer.