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Barbecued food

Can something so good be so bad?

Barbecued food
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Healthy grilling

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2009

Nothing says summer is here like the smell of a few burgers or a choice cut of steak grilling on a backyard barbecue.

But while the outdoor cookout may be a rite of summer, some worry that consuming too much grilled meat may be hazardous to their health.

Over the years, a number of studies have suggested that barbecuing meat can increase the risk of cancer. Experts say cooking over an open flame - charcoal or gas - results in the formation of certain carcinogenic chemicals in the meat.

So, is barbecued food safe?

Registered dietitian Sheryl Bates Dancho, Community Nutrition Specialist with the Winnipeg Health Region, says it's true that some studies over the years have suggested a link between some barbecued foods and cancer.

These studies suggest that meat cooked at high temperatures causes two types of chemicals - polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines - to form in well done, cooked meat. Work published on the American Institute for Cancer Research website suggests these chemicals may increase the risk for developing cancer.

Dr. Matt Seftel, an oncologist at CancerCare Manitoba, agrees that these chemicals may be harmful. However, Seftel and Bates Dancho say there is no need to throw out the barbecue just yet.

Both say there are a few other things people should take into consideration before barbecuing. The first is whether or not people are making healthy choices about the type of meat they're choosing to barbecue.

"It's all about healthy eating,"says Bates Dancho. Choosing lean red meat, chicken, fish, and tofu are easy ways to cut down on the production of the two chemicals in question. It's also important to cut away any visible fat, before food is put on the grill. People are also advised to stay away from any kind of processed meat. Bates Dancho also recommends adding some colourful vegetables to the barbecue mix, such as red peppers, zucchini and mushrooms.

Another important tip, says Bates Dancho, is to marinate the meat before tossing it on the barbecue. A study produced by researchers at Kansas State University and the Food Science Institute found that meat marinated in sauces containing spices and herbs with antioxidants helped reduce the hazardous chemicals formed during grilling.

Once your meat is picked, prepped and on the grill, it's important to reduce smoke and flare-ups. One should always try to cook smaller portions of meat and even pre-cook meat to reduce the time it's on the grill. It's also important to cut away any charred or burned parts before eating, because that's where some of the chemicals may be hiding.

Seftel says some of the concern about barbecuing relates not to the barbecue itself, but to the meat that's being eaten.

He explains that there is more evidence to suggest that the excess consumption of red meat, or the consumption of processed meat, can increase the risk of developing cancer more than whether that meat is prepared on a barbecue. He suggests that people eat no more than 500 grams of cooked red meat a week, and that they follow the Canada Food Guide to ensure they are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Bottom line: The risk of developing cancer simply from eating barbecued food is minimal. But it doesn't hurt to take some precautions while doing it.

"A small amount of barbecuing in the grand scheme of things is not particularly harmful, so I'm not going to completely discourage barbecuing," says Seftel. "I would just say concentrate on the food you're eating at the barbecue and not the barbecue itself."

Alana Cole is a Winnipeg writer


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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