TO BBQ OR NOT TO BBQ, THAT IS THE QUESTION by Dr. Jennifer Harrison, July 1, 2016

Summer time and BBQs just naturally go together. However, did you know that barbecuing can be extremely unsafe? Research has revealed the dangers of barbecuing ranging from the carcinogens that are created from charring when meat is cooked at high temperatures (HCAs – heterocylic amines), to the toxins in the smoke created from burning fat drippings that have fallen through the grill (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – PAH’s) to broken wire bristles from the grill cleaning brush getting into the barbecued food. And don’t forget about food poisoning related to improper food handling. As if that isn’t bad enough, in 2014, 16,600 people in the US ended up in the emergency room because of injuries involving grills.1 According to the US National Fire Protection Association, July is the peak month for grill fires. In the UK, one in 30 backyard BBQ fires are caused by grillers who are drunk.2 The good news is that there are ways to enjoy your favourite barbecued foods and protect your health and home. Let’s take a look.

  1. First of all, don’t drink and grill! Alcohol, fire, gas and sharp kitchen utensils are never a good combination. One US firefighter, with 24 years of experience, estimated that 95% of barbecuing mishaps are alcohol related.3 While beer and BBQs are practically synonymous, save the alcoholic beverages until after the grilling is done.
  2. Focus! Many BBQ fires are caused by the griller getting distracted and not paying attention to the task at hand.
  3. Don’t bring an outdoor BBQ indoors. Also, it’s not a good idea to have it in a tent, on a balcony or covered porch. Around 29 percent of home fires start this way.3
  4. Be aware that gas and propane BBQs are involved in almost six times more house fires than grills that use charcoal. Again, sober focus and attention are essential for safe barbecuing.
  5. To prevent meat charring and creating the carcinogens that come with that, use marinades or rubs that contain herbs such as rosemary, thyme and pepper. Coating the meat can reduce carcinogen production by up to 96 percent!4  Plus, rubs and marinades add wonderful flavouring to which ever meat you may be grilling.
  6. Precook your meat. If you cook your meat half-way before putting it on the BBQ you can reduce charring as well as the production of advanced glycation endproducts (AGE’s). These are inflammatory products found in the char produced when meats are cooked at high temperatures. The body can’t digest them and they end up accumulating in the body and organs causing damage and pre-mature aging.
  7. Choose lean meats for grilling and be sure to include fish in the mix. The fat in red meat tends to promote inflammation in the body so it’s good to make sure that it’s not all steak and hamburgers this summer. You can also reduce grease drippings reaching the coals by having some aluminum foil underneath the meat. This further prevents inhalation of the PAH’s in the smoke caused by burning grease not to mention grill fires.
  8. To thaw frozen meat, place it in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Plan ahead as thawing meat in the fridge can take hours. Sealed meats can be thawed in cold water. Using a microwave is also an option. For tips on how to safely thaw meat, check out this link What’s Safer: Thawing Meat in Water or the Microwave?

9. To prevent foodborne illnesses, avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat away from vegetables and fruits being served. Also, use separate utensils, cutting boards and plates for raw meat.6 Make sure that once the meat is cooked, it goes onto a fresh plate. Foodborne illnesses can also be avoided by thoroughly washing your hands before and after handling raw meat. To ensure that meat such as chicken and pork are cooked to the correct temperature, use a cooking thermometer. For more food safety tips, check out this Government of Canada link.

While the hazards of barbecuing are vast and numerous, by following the recommendations above, you should be able to fully and safely enjoy your favorite summer pastime!