Guru Kate: BBQ Conundrums

Does grilling with charcoal cause cancer?

Such an American controversy. Scientific findings from around the world contradict each other, and as a result, companies feel the need to print a warning on their bags that “burning briquettes may release carcinogenic compounds.”

There is a central theory behind this question: that when you cook with charcoal, you release nasty little buggers called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This group of chemicals contain a few of the environmental compounds known to cause a spontaneous change in cells that switches them from normal behavior to evil cancerous behavior. It should also be noted that there exist non-carcinogenic PAH compounds.

Some Swedish scientists went ahead and found out that charcoal emits PAHs when burned. Then scientists from Kuwait charcoal grilled some of their local dishes, and discovered that “meat tikka”, “shish tauk” and “chicken shawerma” had varying PAH levels based on the marinade, grill time, geometry of grill (dodecahedron anyone?) and fat content.

Just joking about the dodecahedron geometry – in reality, the researchers tested vertical and horizontal grills. They found that when they placed the heat source to the side of a vertical grill, there were much fewer PAHs emitted than when grilling over a horizontal surface. The animal fat didn’t drip on the fuel source.

This opens up another can of worms: heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These are potentially carcinogenic compounds directly on the food. According to the American Cancer Association, these form when the meat is cooked for a long period of time very close to the heat source.

Altogether now: PAHs are released when animal fat hits charcoal and combusts, which can then enter your lungs while grilling and food while eating. HCAs are formed as a part of your meat when it is cooked for too long.

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None of that is to say that grilling causes cancer, by any means. It is just one of the many factors that should be considered. Looking for an alternative? suggests using “natural” charcoal (although isn’t coal natural? Just a thought). Natural charcoal is made of specialty woods and don’t release PAHs when fat is dripped on them.

If you’re still way too paranoid about cancer but don’t want to give up the grill, try vegetables. They won’t drip fat and they won’t generate any HCAs when cooked, no matter how long.

Are those foam can cozys intended to keep your drink cold? 

I think you’re referring to the things you slip on over a can of pop (or beer, if that’s more your style) while tail-gating or camping. If you want the technical name for them, Wikipedia calls them a beer koozie.

Regardless, my experience has always been to use them when I want my hands to keep warm. But for those of you cold-drink snobs out there, you’ll be pleased to know that most koozies also work in a chilling fashion.

Koozies are made of neoprene, foam or a mixture of the two. Neoprene is actually the material used to make wetsuits. So next time you tail-gate, just think of your drink taking a nice scuba dive down your gullet.