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How bad is BBQ?

Are you planning to enjoy grilling this weekend? Grilling outside sounds even more fun than usual this summer after the whole spring we spent indoors to protect each other from COVID-19. We all are anxious to enjoy the healing energy of good food, good company (with physical distancing), and good laughter! BBQing comes with all the good vibes. But wait. When you say BBQ, a dark cloud comes with it to health-conscious minds: Isn’t BBQ carcinogenic??

Food science has revealed “cooking meat with high temperature” produces some chemicals that could be carcinogenic and mutagenic, which means the chemicals cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.[1]

The chemicals are heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals are formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan-frying or grilling directly over an open flame.

Things to know about HCAs

How HCAs are formed:  3 things in “muscle meat” react at high temperatures–amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine or creatinine (substances found in muscle).

– HCAs are not found in significant amounts in cooked meat when cooked at lower temperatures, such as boiling, simmering, steaming, and microwaving.

– Only muscle meats form HCAs. Other animal-sourced foods, for example, milk and eggs, do not produce significant quantities of HCAs.

– Longer cooking time increases HCA production. Does it mean “Well-done” meat contains more HCAs? Yes, that is true—however, you would not want to get sick from foodborne illness. Flipping the meat more often will suppress the formation of HCAs as it lowers the “cooking temperature.”

– Chicken with skin produces far higher amounts of HCAs than beef.

– Read the label of marinade you use. Avoid the marinade if it’s made with fructose, as it triples the HCA level in cooked meat.

Things to know about PAHs

How PAHs are formed: Fat and juices from meat grilled directly over a heated surface or open fire drip and cause flames and smoke. The smoke contains PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.

– PAHs can be found in other smoked foods, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.

barbecue fun

Can BBQ be healing?

Even with the news of HCAs, barbecuing and grilling are getting more popular. BBQ is not just a cooking method—it comes with plenty of positive energy—whether in the great outdoors or at a garden party. The whole process is enjoyable and memorable: Prepping and grilling to build up anticipation with delicious aromas, sizzling sounds, pleasant conversations, and the dramatic fire and smoke.

BBQing is bonding through sharing the food from the same “pot (grill in this case),” not to mention savoring the distinctive delicious BBQ flavor and smell. You are totally “present” when you are BBQing. This can be the healing energy of the barbecue.<

How to reduce HCAs in the grilled meat

Then, how can we make this “mindful” moment safer?

You could use grass-fed beef as a cleaner alternative. Or, you can use recipes using plant-based ingredients, such as beans, instead of meat. If you are using “meat alternative” products, make sure to read the nutrition label carefully as some products are not as healthy as they sound.

If you are cooking traditional hamburgers, here are the 3 ways to make the grilled meat safer and more enjoyable by reducing HCA formation in your grilled meat:

1. Mix one or more of the “powerful antioxidants” below to reduce the formation of HCAs.

2. Marinade or presoak the meat to incorporate these “powerful antioxidants” into the muscle fibers.

3. Use homemade rubs to apply the “powerful antioxidants” topically, which is reasonably effective.

Green tea is a great source for “powerful antioxidants” to do the job.[2] Green tea powder or Matcha is an easy addition to mix in or use as a rub, along with garlic, onion, lemon juice, cherries, apples, virgin olive oil. Green tea solution can be used for the marinade. Beer or wine can be used for marinade and interestingly, beer is more effective than wine for this purpose.[3]

barbecue ribs

How to neutralize HCAs and to make the BBQ meal safer and more enjoyable

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are no guidelines in terms of the safe amount and frequency of cooked meat consumption. Whenever you savor Umami rich cooked meat, it’s a great idea to enjoy it with foods known to neutralize the hazard of HCAs, such as a cold glass (or warm cup) of green tea, cruciferous vegetables, yogurt, etc.[5-9]

Check out the recipe using the green tea powder you have at home: Healthier & Umami-boosted Hamburger Recipe

hamburger made with green tea

 Secret to boost flavor: Use two Umami types together

“Umami (oo-mah-me)” is originally a Japanese term, meaning “delicious flavor.” Now this term is used in English to describe a savory taste, one of the five basic tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.

Food science is discovering there are 3 types of Umami: Glutamate, Inosinate, and Guanylate, and the synergetic effect of two increases the Umami flavor in the food exponentially:

Glutamate + Inosinate
Glutamate + Guanylate

Glutamate rich foods: quality green tea, dried tomato, garlic, chili pepper, onion, broccoli, anchovies, soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, cheese, etc.

Inosinate rich foods: fish, poultry, pork, beef

Guanylate rich foods: mushrooms (even higher when dried)

In human Umami receptors, the response to the mixture of the two, glutamate and inosinate is about 8 times greater than that to glutamate alone.[4] Adding green tea (Glutamate) to the preparation of BBQ meat (Inosinate) is a logical idea not only for the reduction of HCAs but also to dramatically increase flavor.

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  1. “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk” National Cancer Institute
  2. Lili Tian, Jian’an Huan “Antioxidant effects of tea catechins on the shelf life of raw minced duck meat”  Food Science and Technology 2019 
  3. Melo A, Viegas O, Petisca C, Pinho O, Ferreira IM. “Effect of beer/red wine marinades on the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in pan-fried beef” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2008
  4. Kenzo Kurihara “Umami the Fifth Basic Taste: History of Studies on Receptor Mechanisms and Role as a Food Flavor” Biomed Research International 2015
  5. Arimoto-Kobayashi S, Inada N, Sato Y, et al. “Inhibitory effects of (-)-epigallocatechin gallate on the mutation, DNA strand cleavage, and DNA adduct formation by heterocyclic amines” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2003
  6.  Edenharder R, Sager JW, Glatt H, Muckel E, Platt KL. “Protection by beverages, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flavonoids against genotoxicity of 2-acetylaminofluorene and 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP) in metabolically competent V79 cells” Mutation Research 2002
  7. Shishu, Singla AK, Kaur IP. “Inhibition of mutagenicity of food-derived heterocyclic amines by sulphoraphene—an isothiocyanate isolated from radish” Planta Medica 2003
  8. Knasmüller S, Steinkellner H, Hirschl AM, Rabot S, Nobis EC, Kassie F. “Impact of bacteria in dairy products and of the intestinal microflora on the genotoxic and carcinogenic effects of heterocyclic aromatic amines” Mutation Research 2001
  9. Nowak A, Libudzisz Z. “Ability of probiotic Lactobacillus casei DN 114001 to bind or/and metabolize heterocyclic aromatic amines in vitro” European Journal of Nutrition 2009
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