Toxic fumes, risk of burns, barbecuing is not as harmless as one might think. Is the barbecue dangerous for your health? What precautions should be taken? Our expert's advice on how to safely enjoy this very summery pleasure.

Is the barbecue harmful to your health?

Every summer, millions of French people succumb to the delicious smell of grilled meat from the barbecue, or fish, small vegetables or tofu for vegetarians! However, this outdoor cooking method would be harmful to health, especially because of carcinogenic substances that would emanate from the smoke of the charred meat or cooked at high heat. Without demonizing it, it is important to know the precautions that will help you barbecue without putting your health at risk. The point with Doctor Arnaud Cocaul, nutritionist.

What is carcinogenic in the barbecue?

Intended for grilling meat, fish and other foods in the open air, the barbecue is usually powered by charcoal. Today, there are also electric or gas charcoals. 

Several recent studies have shown that when meat and fish are charred or cooked over an open flame, they produce carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).` 

 Cancer risks: is charcoal harmful?

This phenomenon is explained by the fact that when the fat of the meat or fish falls on the embers, smoke is produced. This smoke is more or less rich in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including benzopyrene, a carcinogen that is also found in cigarette smoke.

In laboratory experiments, the U.S. National Cancer Research Institute found that PAHs and HCAs cause changes in DNA that can increase the risk of cancer: they are mutagenic (Source 1).

There are precautions to take when buying or barbecuing that reduce the risk of harm to health. 

Precautions to take for a safer barbecue

General precautions

"You must install the grill at least 10 cm from the embers, and cook the food on them, and not in contact with the flames" specifies Doctor Arnaud Cocaul. "Avoid heating to more than 220°C, and clean the grill well after each use".

Precautions regarding food to be grilled on the barbecue

"Rather cook lean meats and fish that release less hydrocarbons," suggests Dr. Cocaul. In meats, prefer:

  •     Rump steak;
  •     The round of heath;
  •     Beef steak scoter (beef);
  •     Prime rib (lamb);
  •     The sea bream ;
  •     Sea bass.

"Enhance your dish with vegetables, which are rich in protective antioxidants and rebalance the body's acid-base," he adds. Marinate meats, as marinades naturally protect them! Also remove as much fat as possible to reduce the appearance of HCA. You can make your own marinades with oil, lemon juice, herbs or spices.

Precautions to take when cooking on the barbecue

It is important to turn the food often to avoid overheating and hydrocarbon build-up. "Do not eat the blackened parts. They contain potentially carcinogenic molecules," he recommends.

Also, do not cook meat at very high temperatures and avoid contact with the hottest embers by placing the pieces on the edges.

Be careful: the firelighters intended to facilitate the lighting of the charcoal must have burned before placing the meat or fish to be grilled. Avoid rekindling the fire with them!

Another tip: no more than two barbecues per week! It is recommended not to exceed two barbecues per week to limit the risk of food overexposure to hydrocarbons. 

 How to choose your barbecue: which one is the healthiest?

The aficionados will opt for the charcoal barbecue, the impatient for the gas barbecue, the pragmatic for the easy-to-use electric barbecue.

The charcoal or wood barbecue

This is a "traditional" cooking method, which cooks the food thanks to the embers. The barbecue takes longer to start and requires a lot of maintenance.

Tips for use:

  •     Use only quality charcoal (briquettes or large pieces): if the material is impure, it emits toxic substances when burning that will end up directly in your plate ;
  •     Do not use paper to light the fire, nor small wood, which emits toxic gases;
  •     Do not use alcohol or turpentine to light the fire, as this can cause large flames that are dangerous for you and the environment;
  •     To extinguish your barbecue, smother the embers with sand.

The gas barbecue

Food is cooked on cast iron plates or lava stones, placed above gas burners. It is very quick to light, but it is more expensive than charcoal or electric barbecues. In addition, it does not provide the flavor of the "traditional" barbecue.

Advice for use:

Choose propane (rather than butane), suitable for outdoor use, since it only freezes above -42°C!

The electric barbecue

It uses a heating element that cooks the food.  It is quick to light, easy to use, and does not produce smoke (ideal if you have a balcony as it is generally accepted by condominiums), but it requires an electrical connection and is not easy to clean.

Whether it's charcoal, electric or gas, the important thing is to choose a barbecue with a water tank or a vertical grill. "These accessories limit the production of smoke when the fat from the meat or fish falls on the embers," says Dr. Arnaud Cocaul, nutritionist.

The National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (Anses) also recommends clean charcoal for charcoal barbecues - because it contains far fewer toxic phytosanitary products than ordinary charcoal - vine shoots or crates. 

Good to know

The mobile barbecue is governed by the French safety standard D 37-101. This French standard (NF) must absolutely appear on the device to guarantee maximum safety. It may be accompanied by a CE mark, guaranteeing its compliance with European standards. 

How do I make a vegetarian barbecue?

Vegetarians can opt for products made from meat substitutes, such as tofu or soy. Specialized stores offer a wide range of vegetarian sausages, chicken or ham.

Alternatively, you can cook vegetables, cheese and fruit! You can grill zucchini, eggplant, peppers, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, mushrooms... And if you like to mix it up, make vegetable and cheese brochettes with all your favorite ingredients!

To finish the meal, nothing beats grilled fruit. Pineapple, watermelon or peaches are a real treat on the barbecue.  




Source 1 : " Five Steps for Cancer-Safe Grilling ", Institut am√©ricain de recherche sur le cancer, 26 juin 2018.