Is Barbecue Good For You?

While the surgeon general has yet to label briquets with a health warning, it is true that barbecue may be hazardous to your health. A National Cancer Institute study linked lab animal cancers with meat cooked at the high temperatures common on the back yard grill. At greater-than-boiling heat chemicals called heterocyclic aromatic amines form.

Dubbed HAAS by researchers, these compounds are mutagens, shown to damage the DNA in laboratory-test bacteria, and the mutations may lead to cancer later in life. Richard Adamson of the National Cancer Institute places the risk from HAAS somewhere between the well-documented damage caused by alcohol and the possible danger of drinking chlorinated tap water. In other words, the risk is a calculated one, the same chance we take every day by driving (far more dangerous) or eating sushi (slightly more dangerous).

Other potential carcinogens are formed by dripping fat. The tantalizing aroma wafting from the grill carries polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. And the smoke itself may contribute to lung damage.

There are a couple of strategies to reduce the risks. Drink dark beer. Japanese researchers, in an article published in the January 1999 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (pretty standard reading for bbq lovers), showed that the 24 beers they tested showed “potent inhibitory effect” against mutagens found in several types of HAAS. Dark beer worked best, so hoist a rich, malty brew more often.

Use lump hardwood charcoal instead of mesquite. Bank the fire onto the sides of the barbecue and place a drip pan under the cooking meat to keep the fat out of the fire. Don’t allow meat to become heavily charred, since the carcinogens concentrate in the blackened portions. Or grill only vegetables.

In the end, every lover of barbecue must weigh the risks and make their own decision. Keep this in mind, though: You’re more likely to be hit by a bus than die from barbecue.