The season for outdoor entertaining and barbecues has returned.  Pleasant aromas waft through the neighborhood as people “fire up” the grills, invoking mouthwatering imagery from barbecues past and perhaps appealing to the primal human affinity for the comfort and safety of the communal fire.

Grilling on the barbecue is a controlled method of cooking over an open flame, and today we generally have three types of outdoor cooking: charcoal, gas, and electric.  Have you ever wondered about the health and environmental impacts of each type of grilling?  It turns out that there is no clear choice when trying to balance the impacts, but each method has its benefits, as well as a downside.

First, consider the environment.  Tristam West, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has measured various outputs of gas, electric, and charcoal grills producing 35,000 BTU’s per hour.  Gas grills directly produced 5.6 pounds of carbon each hour and charcoal grills directly produced 11 pounds.  The electric grill doesn’t produce any carbon directly when being used, but when the fuel used to produce and transmit the electricity produced 15 pounds of carbon.  And of course, there is additional carbon associated with the production and transport of the gas and charcoal, too.

Direct emissions of the carbon gasses associated with grilling were the smalles with electric grills – emitting 99% less carbon monoxide and 91% less carbon dioxide than charcoal.  Gas grills also emitted fewer carbon gasses than charcoal, with propane being cleaner than natural gas.

Even though charcoal is dirtier than gas, charcoal comes from a renewable resource.  Both propane and natural gase are non-renewable, fossil fuels (propane is made from crude oil).   But you must pay attention to the ingredients, since not all charcoal is the same.

Most charcoal comes in the form of the briquette, and is a mixture of many substances including sawdust, corn starch, and lighter fluid.  When this type of charcoal is burned, it releases harmful volatile organic compounds and 105 times more carbon monoxide than propane. According to Dee Rivers, who writes for many magazines and newspapers in Texas, pure charcoal or lump charcoal does not produce as many harmful emissions as charcoal briquettes.

If you choose to use charcoal, use a ‘pure’ charcoal without the additives.  Resist the temptation to use lighter fluid!  Instead, start the charcoal fire with a chimney, and when grilling is finished, shut off the air supply or pour water over the coals to extinguish the fire.  If you follow this method, you will find the unused charcoal can be used for your next barbecue.

Next, consider the healthiness of food prepared on the barbecue.

High heat acting on amino acids and creatinine, found in beef, pork, poultry and fish, can creates heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which can be carcinogenic and mutagenic – increasing a person’s cancer risk.  Evidence is not conclusive, but 80% of the research conducted in this area highly suggests this to be the case.  Higher levels of these substances are correlated with higher temperatures and longer cooking times.

The five foods with the highest level of HCA’s are: boneless chicken well done, grilled steak well done, barbecued pork, grilled salmon with the skin, and grilled hamburgers well done.

There are a few things that we can do to make grilling more healthy. The National Cancer Institute has suggested the following:

Avoid prolonged exposures to high heat

Grill portabella mushrooms or soy burgers instead

Marinate the meat—this has been shown to reduce carcinogens up to 90 % in some cases.  It seems that acidic ingredients like vinegar and citrus juice act as barriers

Partially cook meats prior to grilling

Flip meats frequently during cooking

Eat a lot of vegetables; these help to detoxify the substances

Remove the charred bits of meat before eating

The successful barbecue should consider the environmental impact of the grilling method and include cooking techniques that minimize the potential effects of HCAs and PAHs.  The good news is all this can be incorporated with ease, and everyone will still enjoy this American ritual of summer.

Happy Grilling!

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