Insights by Goldie
Use marinades for safer cookouts this summer

Sound Consumer | July 2007

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

One question I get asked frequently every summer has to do with barbecuing. We humans seem to be drawn to grilled — even charred and blackened — foods. Enthusiasts savor the appearance and texture as well as the smoky scent and pungent flavor. It’s primal — a flashback perhaps 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 definitely is not a healthful choice. This is true whether the cooking method is fire-roasting, deep-fat frying, or pan, coal or gas grilling.

Safer barbecuing
There is a higher concentration of chemical compounds associated with cancer in fire-roasted (barbecued) fatty fish and meat. This is 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 or 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, such as those from juice, vinegar or wine. But added protection also may come from the antioxidants 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 Web sites.

Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s Web site is at www.pscleanair.org. Click on “current air quality” for instant info and whether there’s a burn ban. Air quality matters to all of us, but for an increasing number of children and adults with serious respiratory problems, it’s 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 easily can avoid these. Use a gas grill or non-chemical charcoal, available at PCC seasonally.

For charcoal lighting, use an inexpensive Weber Charcoal Chimney starter. They’re great! 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.

More about: food safety, grilling, marinades

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