You head to your patio, spatula and tongs in one hand, a plate of meat in the other, then it hits, that passing thought about the health risks of grilling meats. For years our BBQ bliss has been tainted with talks of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and their association with various types of cancer. HCAs are produced when meat is exposed to high temperatures like the heat from grill flames and PAHs are found in the smoke from burning meat drippings and subsequently deposited on your meat.
Then along came the smoker grill with promises of reducing the risk of HCAs by sheltering meat from direct flames and protecting us from PAHs by collecting meat drippings. Unfortunately, burning wood (or wood pellets) also produce PAHs, meaning smoked foods may in fact contain more PAHs than grilled food and our hearts were broken once again. While the internet is filled with articles about how to reduce the risk from grill cooking, there is little info about PAHs and smoking food to help with our new beloved smoker.
Is there really a reason to get worked up about PAHs or even HCAs for that matter? We don’t know. Studies have shown that exposure to large doses can increase the risk of certain cancers among animals, but observational human studies have been mixed with some finding increased risk and others with no increased risk. A 2015 report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined there was not enough data to reach a conclusion about whether the way meat is cooked affects the risk of cancer. Further complicating the matter, PAHs or HCAs aren’t the hazards, rather it’s the byproducts produced when they are metabolized that cause the risk. Certain genotypes have been shown to produce more of these PAH and HCA byproducts than others meaning the health hazards could be greater for some than others.
Back to your plate of meat:
Humans have been grilling since the dawn of man and smoking for centuries with no obvious harm. Any health risk from these cooking methods is likely very small. Steady your shaking hands so you can use the tongs to load up the smoker grill and follow these tips for reducing PAHs (just to be safe):
- Use low PAH producing woods. One study found apple and alder produced significantly lower amounts of PAHs compared with juniper, spruce, maple, hazel, plum, aspen, and bird-cherry.
- Keep smoking time under 5 hours. The less time your meat is exposed to smoke the fewer PAHs it will pick up. Keep in mind, however, that food poisoning is a far greater risk thank PAHs so ensure your meat is cooked thoroughly.
- Buy a grill with a separate combustion chamber. When the fuel is burned in a separate chamber from the food, PAHs are reduced.
- Watch your portions. A serving of meat is typically 3 oz or about the size of your palm. Try to limit your intake to one serving.
- Save the smoker for special occasions. Smoking meats a few times a month isn’t likely anything to worry about. If it becomes a nightly ritual, however, it may be time to look into some other cooking techniques.