Charcoal Barbecuing: Bad for Your Health?

Buzzle Staff Mar 11, 2019
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For years, people have debated whether or not charcoal grilled foods are bad for health. Is that true? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Here's why...
Decades ago, there was only one way to grill food outdoors: a charcoal grill. There was nothing that could equal the taste of meats and vegetables grilled outdoors over burning charcoal.
Because people had been cooking over coal and wood for centuries, most people didn't give a moment's thought to continuing that tradition in modern civilization, using big cast iron outdoor grills and charcoal briquettes.
But no matter how delicious charcoal grilled foods can be, you should stop and think before indulging yourself, because you could be actually harming your health with every bite, and even before you start eating. Charcoal, when it is burned, produces not only hydrocarbons, but also tiny particles of soot.
These particles not only pollute the air, they can aggravate lung problems and heart ailments. Unfortunately, the crispiness and blackened quality of charcoaled meat that gives it that wonderful woody flavor can form two types of potentially carcinogenic compounds―heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Scientists from Rice University conducted a study in 2003, that found that microscopic bits of polyunsaturated fatty acids released into the air from grilling meat on backyard charcoal grills were contributing significantly to the air pollution in Houston, Texas.
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Air Quality, the city's low air quality levels rank it as one of the more polluted urban areas in the US, mostly due to vehicles and industry. But a large part of the problem lies in emissions from barbecues. Texans have long claimed that they 'live and breathe barbecue', and sadly, they are doing just that.
According to the American Cancer Society, when you grill meat and fat drips down onto the charcoal, PAHs and HCAs form on the coal, and rise along with the smoke, where they are deposited on the food.
As the food is charred, PAHs can form directly on the food. The hotter the temperature and the longer you cook the meat, the more HCAs are formed. These chemicals can also form on broiled and pan-fried 'muscle meats'.
National Cancer Institute research has shown that high intakes of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats can increase the risk of pancreatic, colorectal, and breast cancer. The risks of charcoal are well-known and documented―the Canadian government even requires that charcoal sold in Canada must display a warning label similar to the labels on cigarettes.
Both lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes pollute the air when they burn, although briquettes are the less harmful of the two. Lump charcoal is made from charred wood, to contribute more smoky flavor to foods. But this charred wood also contributes to deforestation, and adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Charcoal briquettes are made partly from sawdust, so they are slightly better than lump charcoal. But the mainstream popular brands may also contain starch, limestone, sodium nitrate, borax, and coal dust.
Many consumers have made the switch to gas grills over the past few decades, but there are still many die-hard holdouts who insist on having a charcoal-grilled steak now and then. If you are one of those, you can lessen your exposure to potentially harmful additives by using natural charcoal brands.
Noram de Mexico's Sierra Madre 100% oak hardwood charcoal is certified by the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program as being sustainably harvested. It contains no coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust, or petroleum. It is sold primarily at Sam's Club stores across the U.S.
There are other companies that also produce all-natural charcoal, including Lazzari and Greenlink, both of which are available at natural food outlets.
The bottom line is that, you can enjoy a charcoal-grilled meal on rare occasions if you want to, but at least do it safely with a natural charcoal brand that doesn't use fillers. Don't overcook the meat, turn the food quickly and stay out of the smoke. The more you lower health risks while barbecuing, the longer you'll stay healthy to enjoy those cookouts.
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