Grilling foods over burning wood or charcoal is a popular cooking method and is encouraged as a lower fat and healthier alternative to frying. Grilling with wood and charcoal also adds rich distinctive flavours to foods.
In Ghana, we enjoy a wide range grilled street foods such as tilapia, mackerel, meat khebabs, plantain, yam and corn.
However, over recent years, claims persist on how grilling can increase the risk of developing cancer leading to some confusion of whether grilling is really a healthy cooking method. Let’s look at the scientific evidence to see if we need to rethink our use of this popular cooking method.
Can grilled foods cause cancer?
According to the World cancer research fund report, 2008, there is limited evidence that grilled and barbecued animal foods are a cause of stomach cancer.
However, the report indicated that there is evidence from experimental settings showing that carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals) are formed when animal foods and some other foods are cooked at very high temperatures and most of all when they are exposed to direct flame. Grilling and barbecuing using an open flame can generate very high temperatures of up to 400°C.
The carcinogens of concern when grilling foods are known as Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They are formed when cooking with intense heat over open flame such as grilling. HCAs are formed as a result of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and Creatine (a chemical found in muscles of meat) reacting together when red meat such as beef, goat meat, chicken and pork are grilled over intense heat.
The high heat is the key factor in the formation of these chemicals. Roasting and baking in ovens involves lower temperatures, so produce less HCAs. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed when grilling meat, fish, or other foods with intense heat over a direct fire results in fat dripping onto the hot fire. PAHs formed are carried in the smoke and deposited on the surface of the food. The higher the intensity of the fire, the more PAHs are produced. Burning of foods during grilling also contributes to PAHs formation.
World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF, 2008) recommends that due to the experimental evidence of production of these carcinogens, it is sensible not to consume burned or charred foods frequently or in large amounts.
Red meat and processed meat
Eating excessive quantities of some of red meat and processed meats may increase the risk of some cancers regardless of whether they are grilled or not. There is strong scientific evidence that a high intake of red meats such as beef, goat and pork increases your risk of bowel cancer. Furthermore, eating processed meat such sausages can increase risk of stomach cancer and bowel cancer (WCRF, 2016)
Practical Tips for Healthy Grilling
It is a good idea to wait until all the flames have died down and all the charcoal has turned grey before you start grilling. This lowers the temperatures of the fire and reduces the amount of the harmful chemicals being produced.
Opt for lean cuts of meat and remove all visible fat to limit fat dripping onto the fire and generating carcinogens in the smoke.
Marinating foods for at least 30 minutes before grilling reduces the levels of cancer causing chemicals produced.
Pre-cooking food such as steaming meat before grilling decreases cooking time on open fire and levels of carcinogens.
Turn food frequently on the fire during grilling to avoid burning.
Avoid grilling food for prolonged periods to decrease production of cancer causing chemicals.
Avoid eating burnt parts of grilled foods.
Clean grilling equipment and utensils thoroughly to remove any burnt-on foods. This will ensure your food is not contaminated with harmful chemicals the next time you use the grill.