March 6, 2006
Barbecued Mythology – It’s Overdone!
By Michael D. Shaw
Spring is only a few weeks away. Some look for crocuses or rosebuds, but I’m waiting for the appearance of the North American Killjoy. You see, I’m betting that before the 2006 vernal equinox occurs, we will be hearing—again—that barbecued foods—chicken, beef, fish, even vegetables—are lethal. Yes, friends, merely heating up these basic foodstuffs over a charcoal (or fake charcoal) fire, turns them into nothing more than a collection of carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals that should be avoided at all costs.
This notion, as popular as it is scientifically unsound, is, like most doom-and-gloom predictions, devoid of context and actual data. As with all health risk urban myths, there is a standard response to those who believe—in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and independent of all logic and rational thought—that danger is at hand: Show me the bodies! Can anyone name a single person who developed cancer from eating a steady diet of barbecued meat, as distinguished from simply eating too much meat or too much food?
Somehow, our killjoy friends can never come up with real proof. Rather, they know someone whose cousin’s sister’s boyfriend’s aunt was diagnosed with a horrible cancer from eating too much of her husband’s barbecue. Alas, some myths never die.
Here’s the science. Grilling meat produces at least two types of potentially dangerous chemicals: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCA). PAH are products of incomplete combustion found in smoke and burned matter. In barbecue grills they typically develop when dripping fat flares up, charring the underside of the meat. You also create PAH when you burn a piece of toast.
HCA are not necessarily more likely to be produced during grilling. They can occur naturally when cooking in an ordinary oven or frying pan, if you turn the heat up high enough. Researchers also make an important distinction regarding HCA, in that they are potent carcinogens when fed to rodents, but the link to cancer in humans is decidedly less clear.
In the lab, the rats get thousands of times the dose a person would receive from the occasional grilled burger. And, as The National Cancer Institute notes,
“There is no good measure of how much HCA would have to be eaten to increase cancer risk, and there are no guidelines concerning consumption of foods with HCA.”
Translation: No one’s dying from eating grilled burgers! It should also be noted that animals tend to be more sensitive to carcinogenic chemicals than humans.
Finally, if you’re going to worry about cooking meat, better you should be concerned about proper cooking temperatures. Many scientists and public health officials rightly note that under-cooking hamburger and other meats increases the risk of food-borne infection due to E. coli bacteria, and other less familiar pathogens. This threat is real, and has immediate, sometimes tragic consequences.
Yet, there are probably more people who know of the barbecued meat urban myth than those who use meat thermometers, and follow USDA temperature recommendations (for barbecued or oven-prepared meats). In a field as complicated as public health, with so much valid information to be disseminated, it is sad that people’s minds should be cluttered with nonsense. Make no mistake, misinformation will often confuse the issue to the extent that valid matters are not addressed. Thus, the urban myth can have legitmate effects, after all.
My advice is to use a meat thermometer, and enjoy your barbecued food this season—without a care!