Cooking outdoors over an open flame is a popular tradition around the world. Grilling and barbecuing in various forms have over two millennia of recorded human history.
As many as 64% of all households in the United States and 72% in Canada own and use an outdoor grill. Grilling use is especially popular during major holidays like the American Independence Day, Canada Day, and South African Heritage Day(1).
No one believes that these traditions should have to end for any reason. But even so, many people don’t realize that grilling can have impacts on health and air quality. This article will explore the health impacts and how to help minimize them.
Carcinogens in grilled food
Carcinogens can be generated by grilling certain foods, especially high-fat meats. Here are the two main ways that grilling and eating grilled food can expose people to carcinogens:
- Ingesting carcinogens.Grilled foods contain cancer-causing compounds (carcinogens) produced by the burning fats and high temperatures of grilling. Carcinogens are then ingested and absorbed through the stomach.
- Inhaling carcinogens.Smoke produced by grilling contains carcinogens and other pollutants that damage health. This smoke can be inhaled directly from the grill and can enter the body through the lungs. Smoke from the grill also contributes to local air pollution.
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Ingestion of carcinogens
As meat, poultry, and fish cook over a fire, fat drips from the cooking meat and burns.
Burning fat produces smoke containing carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).A 2016 study in Food Chemistry found that removing fat drippings from the process of cooking meat reduced the levels of PAHs produced by grilling by 48 to 89 percent(2).
Smoke particles also coat the meat that is being cooked.These particles contribute much of the flavor to cooked meat, but can also result in long-term bodily inflammation that may increase your risk of certain cancers. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified cooked red meat as “Probably carcinogenic to humans” based on preliminary evidence from epidemiological studies(3).
In addition to causing cancer, PAHs have also been linked to reproductive and developmental abnormalities(4).
High-temperature cooking methods, including grilling, also produce carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs). This happens when meat and poultry are cooked at temperatures higher than 300 degrees, causing a reaction of amino acids, sugar and creatine(5).
Well-done, grilled, and barbecued chicken and steak have high levels of HCAs.These have been linked to cancers in the following areas:
Inhalation of carcinogens
In addition to the dangers of ingesting chemicals on grilled food, the inhalation of smoke from the grill is also a health risk.
Barbecue smoke contains PAHs that are carcinogenic and easily absorbed into the lungs.
Tiny ultrafine particles (UFPs) in smoke can also enter into the bloodstream from the lungs and affect every organ in the body, including the brain(6).This can increase an individual’s risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and brain damage.
Smoke from charcoal or wood also produces:
- hydrocarbons, a type of volatile organic compound (VOC)
- soot, made of particles that can beinhaled deep in the lungs and contribute to a variety of respiratory illnesses
Grilling is also a source of outdoor air pollution.
Student researchers at the University of California, Riversidefound that emissions from commercial grills in Southern California are a significant source of air pollution(7).
The project, funded by an annual grant supporting student-designed research at U.S. universities, noted that “for comparison, the average diesel-engine truck on the road today would have to drive 10 miles on the freeway to put out the same mass of particles as a single charbroiled hamburger patty.”
In Beijing, authorities banned all outdoor grilling starting in 2014(8).Individuals face fines as high as 20,000 yuan ($3,200 USD) for infractions.
Although motor vehicles and industrial factories are the greatest sources of air pollutants in Beijing, authorities say the ban on barbecues helps reduce the level of PM2.5 particulates in the air. Under current regulations, barbecues in the open are prohibited throughout the city.
Cleaner, safer grilling
A few simple steps can help make grilling safer, healthier, and a lot better for the environment. Here are a few suggestions:
- Pre-cook meat over low heatin a skillet, oven, or microwavebefore cooking it on the grill. This will help remove some of the fat that can drip and smoke, reducing the production of airborne pollutants and chemicals that coat the meat.
- Grill veggies instead of meats.Grilled vegetables do not contain HCAs, even when charred. Grilled vegetables can be delicious and offer many healthy nutrients and vitamins that are not present in meats.Some grilled vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, and asparagus, have more protein per serving size than steak.
- Reduce drippings.Use aluminum foil as a protective barrier under meat to help prevent drippings from smoking. Choosing a leaner cut of meat will also reduce the amount of fat dripping onto the fire.
- Consider gas or propane over charcoal.Charcoal emits more smoke and pollutants than gas.Charcoal fires are often started with chemical starter fluids that emit additional pollutants. But charcoal from wood is a renewable resource and may be better for the environment in the long term.If you do use charcoal, do so sparingly and sustainably.
- Consider location and wind direction when grilling.Adjust the grilling location if grilling upwind from a home. Close windows if smoke from the grill is headed toward the house or a neighbors’ house.Use an air purifier for smoke that enters indoor spaces.
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Grilling with family and friends is a beloved tradition. By taking a few simple but important steps, we can make grilling safer, healthier, and more sustainable. We can ensure that our outdoor cooking activities not only bring joy and delicious meals but also prioritize our health and the well-being of the environment.