Considerations for the Traeger and barbecue cooking

Cathryn Arndt

Do you ever have a nutrition question that hovers around the edges of your mind for a time until it finally makes its way to the forefront, where it firmly demands to be answered?

You’re in good company. Me too.

For a long time, I have been curious about the health effects of barbecuing and pellet-grilling (via Treager). For years I’ve heard some negative things about it but never really peered into the research. I honestly didn’t want to worry about the infrequent times that I eat barbecue. Yet the question lingered.

Finally, last year, I did the research and made some rather fascinating discoveries about barbecuing that set my mind at ease.

An astute reader may notice that this article is almost a repeat of the one I wrote last year. It was so useful and interesting that I decided to repeat major sections of it. Some information is just timeless!

Let’s dig in.

The “Risks” of Barbecues and Pellet Grills (And Any High-Heat Cooking)

Barbecues use high heat with an open flame for often long periods of time in order to cook food. This is what gives food (typically meat) its charred, crusty-edged characteristics.

A wood pellet grill (pellet smoker) can be more versatile in its temperature range than a grill using smoke and heat to cook. Instead of using direct heat from an open flame, pellet grills use an auger to push wood pellets from the hopper into a fire pot, where its igniter heats pellets and uses blower fans to push the smoke to cook the food.

It has been shown that when cooking meat with direct high heat (280 to 330 degrees Fahrenheit), the amino acids on the meat’s surface react at high temperatures with creatinine to form compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA) or heterocyclic aromatic compounds (HAA). (Note that this is true only of animal flesh but not ALL animal products such as eggs and dairy). Smoke specifically creates another compound called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). The longer you cook your meat at high temperatures, the more HAAs you create. It means the more well-done your burger or steak is, the more of these compounds you will generate and then eat.

The problem with these HAAs is that they’ve been shown to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. They cause abnormal cell growth in animals and humans, modifying DNA by inserting, deleting or breaking it apart.

Studies on rodents show that high amounts of HAAs for prolonged periods of time cause cancer growth.

The data on humans isn’t as straightforward. You can’t exactly test them with a direct dose of HAA’s the way you would a mouse. Instead, you have to look at correlation instead.

Epidemiological studies show that there’s an increased risk of cancer markers with the increased consumption of HAAs. What we do know is that there’s a definite association of cancer among people who consume more HAAs. When you measure them in the human body, HAAs are considered a “menace marker” for cancer. It doesn’t mean you have it or a guarantee that you will get it. It just means that a higher correlation has been seen between people with high HAA amounts and cancer rates. These include many types of cancer in humans, including colon, breast, pancreatic and stomach. Lung cancer is mostly caused by HAAs (since you can also get them from smoking cigarettes too).

Perhaps your mind immediately rushes to the question mine did: “How much do these HAA and PAHs really affect your health? Sure, they caused problems in the lab, but how does that translate into how much barbecue I can eat before worrying (or determining IF I should eat it at all!). How many burgers are too many?”

According to one of the sources I read, if you don’t have a history of cancer in your family then your chances of getting cancer from barbecued foods are 1 in 1 billion. Therefore, “It means that you’d have to eat at least half a pound of grilled foods 5 times a week for 20 years and there’s only a 10% chance that you’ll get cancer. For smoked foods it would be 40 years and you’d only get 3% chance.” ( Other research journals confirmed that no one can directly determine a dose for humans that guarantees a carcinogenic effect.

The truth is no one can totally predict who’ll get cancer. You look for certain risk factors and “biomarkers” but those are ultimately scientific best guesses, not guarantees.

What are we to do with this information? Renounce barbecue and feel guilty over every burger you’ve consumed? Well, don’t, because this isn’t the end of the research. When you pull back and see this in the context of overall food preparation techniques, this topic actually becomes much more fascinating and hopeful!

Mitigating the Risks

You will be happy to know that there IS a way to decrease the effect of the heterocyclic amines without giving up your barbecue!

It turns out that you can protect your food remarkably well by seasonings, dry rubs or marinades! The antioxidants in herbs, spices, fruits and olive oil offer natural protection against HAAs! You have heard of them before: carotenoids in tomatoes, polyphenols in olive oil, anthocyanins in cherries, etc. These actually take care of a majority of the free radicals (the HAAs) in your barbecued meat before you eat them!

Almost any fruit or herb will do it too! Some of the most studied have been garlic, onion, olive oil and rosemary, and fruits like lemon, cherry and apple. Garlic alone has been shown to decrease the production of HAAs by 70%! One study suggested using a marinade with the specific ratio of 1 part lemon, 2 parts garlic and onion each for the best effect from each of these components (which by themselves reduce HAAs very well).

Rosemary extracts as low as .05% concentration have shown to reduce HAAs up to 90%! Cherry and bourbon wood pellets also showed to decrease HAAs!

It’s rather remarkable, isn’t it? The harm that could be done to us by using one cooking technique can be essentially disarmed by what God has provided for us in other foods and food preparation techniques! It sort of balances itself out!

This is also a good reminder of two other things. First, always consider research information in a greater context of real life. Lab data only truly makes useful sense when it’s put to the test in life as we generally live it. As we’ve seen here, just because an experiment revealed one piece of information doesn’t mean that it has the same meaning when applied outside of the lab in the real world.

The second thing to remember is that our food choices matter, but real life isn’t perfect. We must expect that we will probably consume some substances that aren’t beneficial to our health on a daily basis. We can influence a lot, but we can’t control everything.

So accept that degree of risk that comes with being human and use some flavorful tools to offset the risk. Enjoy barbecue, food and life. Guilt-free!

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). She lives in Lebanon, Oregon, with her husband and daughters.