How to enjoy a barbecue safely

There's very little that can beat the feelgood factor of a good barbie in the sunshine. Picture: Esme Allen
There's very little that can beat the feelgood factor of a good barbie in the sunshine. Picture: Esme Allen
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A bit of sun and we’re all at it, whipping the covers off the rusty old barbecue in the garden or heading to the Meadows with a pound of pork links, box of matches and a disposable tin tray of charcoal.

When the weather plays ball, there’s really little that can beat the feelgood factor of a good barbie.

Even if the sausages are almost cremated and the burgers scorched to the consistency of your average house brick, with a cool beer in one hand and the sun’s rays on your face, who really cares?

Sadly there’s a downside – that delicious charred meaty feast comes with its own long list of health warnings.

Last week the Cancer Research Campaign was subjected to a Facebook backlash after posting a status update which urged followers to help raise support for the charity by holding a fundraising garden barbecue. On the surface, a great idea. But soon the charity’s many Facebook friends were pointing out the health risks – piles of red meat and fatty processed sausages and burgers were bad enough. Sticking them on a red hot grill, however, could be worse, causing a reaction in the meat that has been linked to cancer.

As if that’s not scary enough, others may well point to a long list of other risks: chicken and sausages which are burned on the outside but nearly raw on the inside can lead to food poisoning, while storing the raw burgers next to the salad is a recipe for a Monday morning stomach bug.

Throw in burning hot coals capable of scorching stray fingers – or setting the Meadows on fire – choking fume-filled smoke, the dangerous mix of cooking over a flame while enjoying a constant flow of alcohol, and suddenly having a barbecue sounds like dicing with certain death.

At the risk of spoiling all the fun, it seems there is reason to be aware. According to the US-based National Cancer Institute, cooking meat, pork, fish and poultry at high temperatures – such as grilling over an open flame – leads to the creation of certain chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Exposure to high levels of both has been shown to cause cancer in animals. It’s also believed the chemicals can damage the DNA in human genes and could lead to cancer.

Worse, it’s feared that barbecues can double that risk as meat is exposed to the chemicals in smoke rising from burning coal and the flare-ups from drips of fat. And because cooking meat on a barbecue often takes longer, more heterocyclic amines are released.

There is some good news, however. For there are ways of minimising our risks and ensuring our barbecue still hits the spot. For a start, the Cancer Research Campaign insists there’s no need to avoid barbecues – or meat completely – but adds that it’s worth cutting back on our consumption of red meat and processed meats anyway. It suggests that rather than give up grilling food on the barbecue, part-cook larger items so they spend less time on the grill where the harmful effects can happen. And keep a close eye so the meat doesn’t became charred. It also suggests boosting the barbie with healthy options such as vegetable skewers, tofu, Quorn and plenty of salads. And it suggests keeping a check on two other cancer risks – too much booze and too much sun.

Simply tweaking our cooking method might not only help keep us safe, but improve the taste of the food. According to research in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, pouring your pint over your pork chops could help cut out the carcinogens, while researchers in Portugal found marinating meat in beer decreased the levels of cancercausing compounds by up to 53 per cent.

While cancer strikes fear into us all, the Food Standards Agency suggests the most common health risk from a barbecue is food poisoning from meat that’s not been thoroughly cooked and cross contamination between uncooked meat and food that’s ready to eat. It suggests flipping meat regularly to ensure it is cooked right through and checking before serving – particularly minced beef products like burgers and processed meat such as sausages. “Don’t assume that because meat is charred on the outside it will be cooked properly on the inside,” says an FSA spokesperson. “Cut the meat at the thickest part and ensure none of it is pink on the inside.”

It warns bugs can be easily spread from raw meat on to cooking utensils, plates, salads and burger buns. It’s also important to keep certain fresh foods cool, such as dips, creamy desserts and cold rice salads.

Executive head chef Jason Wright of Steak in Picardy Place is a barbecue expert who also advocates giving meat and poultry a head start in the kitchen and finishing it off over the hot grill at the last minute. “A steak is a really difficult thing to cook well on a barbecue,” he says. “To be honest, a sausage is pretty hard to cook well on a barbecue too. If I’m doing a barbecue, I’ll precook most things inside in the 
kitchen – fish isn’t such a problem – and finish off on the grill. It doesn’t affect the taste and I know everything is cooked properly. If you put a raw sausage on the grill, it’s going to be charred black on the outside, raw inside – and that is not good.”

While gas barbecues will cook food at a constant temperature, Jason believes the only real barbecue flavour comes from using coals or, for fish, cedar wood. However, he warns against being too tempted by a cheap throw-away instant barbecue tray.

“I don’t trust them for cooking the food thoroughly,” says Jason, who is about to open his second restaurant, Fish Eatery, also at Picardy Place. “These trays often don’t give off constant heat and it’s difficult to regulate the cooking.”

Another risk factor is the noxious fumes given off once they’ve been used – potentially deadly should campers be tempted to bring them inside for warmth.

And, of course, it’s worth remembering you are cooking with red hot coals. The Fire Service recommends making sure your barbecue is on a level surface away from plants and trees and if using charcoal barbecues, only use the minimum amount of recognised fire lighters or starter fuel, not petrol.

But if it’s put you off heading to the great outdoors – or the garden – for a summer barbecue, don’t be too despondent. After all, before the kitchen stove and the microwave were invented, barbecuing dinner was the only way to cook. “People have been barbecuing their food since time began – and well before the first kitchen was designed,” laughs Jason. “Might as well get out and enjoy it.”

• Steak is at 14 Picardy Place. For more information on how to stay BBQ safe, go to NHS Choices Summer Health, at nhs.uk/Livewell/Summerhealth, or the Cancer Research Campaign, BBQ to Beat Cancer at cancerresearchuk.org/support-us/do-your-own-fundraising/bbq

Want to barbecue but also want to stay safe? Here’s how to lower the risks.

• Consider using a barbecue grill with a built-in fan which can help stop it from smoking and prevent harmful chemicals and carcinogens being inhaled. Online retailer cuckooland.com has a selection of portable Lotus Grills which come with battery-powered built-in fan.

• Lower the temperature to prevent meat from burning and reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds. A barbecue that has a temperature control dial will assist with this.

• Marinade meat to create a barrier between meat and the formation of potentially harmful HCAs

• Make more use of seafood. Seafood typically forms less HCAs than meat and requires a shorter cooking time, reducing exposure to flames on the grill. Opt for leaner meats and trim any fat before grilling to reduce dripping and flame flare-ups. and opt for less processed food.

• Cut down on grill time by oven roasting or pan-searing, or choose smaller portions like kebabs that require less grilling.

• Clean your grill after each use to avoid transferring leftover chemicals to your next meal.

• Flip meat frequently to reduce carcinogens that may arise.

• Pick off the burnt bits before eating.

• If you’re the chef, be aware of how much alcohol you are consuming. Red hot coals and a drunken cook are not a good combination.

• Keep an eye on how you are storing your cooked and raw food and ensure food is cooked through.