Nishta Saxena imageFor many Canadians, barbecuing is a summertime ritual. The art and flare of this cooking technique is culturally entrenched and can be a healthier way to prepare food.

But those sought-after grill marks on burgers and steaks are actually signs that a chemical reaction has taken place and, when eaten in excess, can contribute to life-threatening disease.

"When foods are charred and smoked at high temperatures, changes in the chemical structure of inherent fats, proteins and sugars occurs, creating toxic compounds," says Nishta Saxena, a Clinical Dietitian in the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre's Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

"Carcinogenic substances including heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are some of the toxic compounds created that can lead to pancreatic cancer and other diseases." According to Nishta, the key to healthy barbecuing is avoiding charring and direct contact between the food and flame. Also, try to balance the frequency of barbecued meals with other cooking techniques, including baking and steaming.

To keep your barbecue lit, but not compromise your health, try these tips at home:

  1. Heat your barbecue to a lower temperature and use a meat thermometer to check that meat is thoroughly cooked. Temperatures higher than 212 degrees Celsius promote the formation of toxic compounds;
  2. Avoid drips. Choose leaner cuts of meat and trim fat to avoid flaming that occurs when fat drips off the meat and comes in contact with charcoal or flame. Use water spray to control flare-ups;
  3. Avoid pouring marinade on meats while grilling. Marinate food the night before cooking to allow absorption, and then dry with a paper towel before grilling to remove excess liquid that can burn. Use homemade marinades with citrus, spices and herbs because the sulphur and antioxidants in these ingredients can help reduce formation of HCAs during cooking;
  4. Wrap foods such as vegetables and potatoes in tinfoil and then cook on the barbecue – this technique removes direct contact with charcoal and flame and uses steam and heat convection to cook the food; you can also cover grill with perforated aluminium foil to prevent flare-ups;
  5. Keep your barbecue clean by using a proper grill brush and oil to clean the grill after every use to remove debris that may increase flaming.​​

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