Insights by Goldie
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Sound Consumer | April 2002

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Get ready now for safer cookouts this summer

Q: I see the term "fire-roasted" on veggies such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Muir Glen's Fire Roasted Tomatoes are awesome. The fiery flavor of smoked jalape-o peppers (called chipotles) is wonderful in soups and stews. At home, we enjoy grilling eggplant, zucchini and other veggies, marinated tofu, some frozen veggie burgers, and also fish, chicken and other meats. What are the health concerns to consider? How can we lessen them?

A: Fire-roasting is generally done directly over a flame or coals, although a somewhat similar result comes from cooking foods directly under, rather than over, the gas flame or electric heat surface. We humans seem to be drawn (perversely, perhaps!) to charred, blackened foods. Enthusiasts savor the appearance and texture as well as the smoky scent and pungent flavor. It's primal — a flashback to our cave-dwelling forbears.

Is eating charred foods hazardous to our health? Most healthy people who occasionally indulge in moderate servings of fire-roasted foods are probably doing so at no substantial risk. Least risky are lightly grilled vegetables and fruits. But frequently eating large quantities of any charred foods is definitely not a healthful choice. This is true whether the cooking method is fire-roasting, deep-fat frying or pan grilling.

Try less risky barbecuing
There is a higher concentration of chemical compounds associated with cancer in fire-roasted (barbecued) fatty fish and meat. This is so because meats are essentially protein-based muscle tissue and contain the naturally occurring chemical, creatine. When creatine is subjected to the high temperatures of barbecuing and frying, it reacts with the amino acids that comprise protein. This reaction results in the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines (called HAAs), which are potent carcinogens.

There is yet another hazard, especially when the fish or meat is cooked directly over the flame or coals (as opposed to under a broiler flame or even beside the fire or coals as early indigenous peoples did with fish or meat). When grilled directly over the flame or coals, the fat drips down onto the heat and brings back up harmful (but tasty!) carcinogens, especially benzopyrene in the smoke. These are deposited directly onto the fish or meat, even if it is not charred.

But many people thoroughly delight in eating heavily blackened and charred fish or meat, including the skin of fish or chicken, or the crisp pork or beef fat. These crunchy surfaces may taste terrific, but they are sources of hazardous compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (referred to as PAHs).

For less risky barbecuing, line the grill with foil and punch just a few holes to let fat drip out. This will minimize the deposit of harmful chemicals. You can also place the fish or meat in a heatproof covered skillet or make a packet of heavy foil as a container. Leave just a little opening at the top to allow some smoky flavor in, and keep most harmful substances out.

Studies also indicate that marinades used for grilling may offer protection from chemicals when grilling. Presumably, this is because marinades include acids (from juice, vinegar or wine). But added protection also may come from the antioxidents and phytochemicals (plant-based nutrients) in various herbs and spices in the marinade, or even from the use of a bit of unsaturated vegetable oil.

Be a good neighbor
Finally, we all want to be good neighbors, so remember: where there's fire ... there's smoke. In densely populated urban areas the cookout season certainly adds its share of particulates to the air. Although recreational outdoor barbecuing is not restricted, even on days with poor air quality, we can make a choice.

Before deciding to grill on any given day, we can check air-quality advisories furnished by radio, TV, newspapers or websites. Puget Sound Clean Air Agency's website is at www.pscleanair.org. Click on "air quality right now" for instant info. Air quality matters to all of us but for an increasing number of children and adults with serious respiratory problems, it is a matter of life and breath.

On a hot summer afternoon it's frequently not our neighbor's burgers we're inhaling but the chemical stench of their starter fluids or infused "instant lighting" charcoal. These also add a chemical load to the food they cook. You can easily avoid all the starter fluids or chemical-infused briquettes.

Use a gas grill or look for non-chemicalized charcoal, available at PCC seasonally. For easier lighting, try one of the inexpensive gadgets found at outdoor stores. They look like a coffee can, open at both ends. A bit of paper, kindling and coals or wood are mounded in the tube, lit, and in a very short time the coals are ready to spread for cooking — about as rapidly as with chemical starters, and minus the hazards.

Simple and flavorful marinades

Basic marinade for tenderizing and seasoning beef, lamb, or chicken. Sufficient for about 3 pounds meat:

  • 1 cup olive oil (or half olive, half canola )
  • 1/2 cup good vinegar (apple cider, balsamic, red or white wine styles) or part lemon juice
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh herbs, minced (such as parsley, tarragon, chives, or rosemary, thyme and marjoram) — if using dry herbs, reduce to 3 to 4 teaspoons

Fruity marinade for fish, chicken, tofu or tempeh:

  • 1 1/2 cups unrefined fruit juice (unfiltered apple, or pear or pineapple)
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or 1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice)
  • 2 to 3 inches grated gingerroot, squeezed (2 to 3 tablespoons juice)
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2 tablespoons untoasted sesame oil (or one tablespoon toasted oil)

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