By now you've heard that barbecuing carries certain risks. And we're not talking about a natural gas explosion, but the long term downside of eating grilled meats.
When you sizzle meat on the barbie, it produces a byproduct known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Despite the “aromatic” in that phrase, these are toxic bad guys that generate a variety of difficult-to-spell chemicals you don’t want to be eating, at least not often. You can mitigate these toxic compounds in several ways: Marinading, cooking on low heat and trimming the fat from your meat.
All of those precautions reduce the smoke-forming splatter from the grill that causes your meat to get coated in PAHs. You can also make sure your meat is as far as reasonably possible from the briquettes.
In fact, don't even use charcoal briquettes. This isn’t a meat ballet. You don’t need briquettes and their environmental profile isn’t so hot. You're better off grilling over hardwoods, because they burn at a lower temperature. That's the word from MD Anderson Center, the cancer treatment hospital in Houston.
So let’s review: Marinate, cook on low, trim fat, use hardwoods. Practice these safer grilling techniques to lower your risk of colorectal cancer.
Then know this about meats to reduce your risk anytime, not just when you’re grilling:
- The meats that raise your risk of colon cancer are red meats and processed meat, also known as "lunch meat" that's been preserved with nitrites. Look for nitrite- and nitrate-free sliced meats, and cut back on ham, pastrami, salami and pepperoni. Hot dogs also have this problem, but really, you're still eating hot dogs?
- Eat less red meat by keeping portions small and cutting back your weekly intake. Studies haven't proven yet that grass-fed meat is better cancer-wise, but because it's less fatty – producing fewer PAHs on the grill – switching to grass-fed meats appears to be a good step when cooking over a flame. Fish and chicken also produce fewer PAHs because they’re less fatty.
- Avoid smoked meats, because they're coated PAHs, but look for new methods, such as sugar-smoking that studies have found reduce or even eliminate the dangerous chemicals formed by traditional smoking.
Next, mitigate your risk by eating foods that help protect you from colorectal cancer and other cancers.
- Eat high fiber foods and plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fruits (note: French Fries don't count).
- To specifically guard against colorectal cancer, a key study also suggests making sure you get garlic, milk and calcium (vegans can get plenty of calcium from alternative milks).
Two more steps are important. Make that a thousand steps. Getting enough exercise has been "convincingly" shown to reduce colorectal cancer risk (see more below).
The second step? Keep that toast to one drink or better yet, make it non-alcoholic. Limiting alcohol consumption will reduce your chances of getting colorectal, breast and other cancers, according to a growing body of research.
A World Cancer Research Fund 2011 review by an expert panel summed it up this way:
"The evidence that physical activity protects against colon cancer is convincing. The evidence that consumption of foods containing dietary fibre protects against colorectal cancer is convincing. The evidence that red meat, processed meat, ethanol from alcoholic drinks (by men, and probably by women), as well as body fatness and abdominal fatness, and the factors that lead to greater adult attained height, or its consequences, are causes of colorectal cancer is convincing."