Charcoal, gas, and the cancer from a good BBQ

Oh, it’s on now between charcoal and gas, my friends.

Wired.com today explains the science of why food grilled over charcoal is better than food grilled over gas.

Aromas are released when you bite into your food. They travel up your retronasal cavity, and light up your olfactory receptors. That neurological signal mixes with whatever your taste buds are saying and tells your brain what’s going on in your mouth.

Of course, even food cooked on a gas grill gives off aromas — all food does. But food grilled over a charcoal flame has a special one: guaiacol.

Guaiacol is an aroma compound produced when you use heat to break down lignin, the resin responsible for holding strands of cellulose together to form wood. “It has a smoky, spicy, bacony aroma,” says Sacks. “In fact, the flavor that most people associate with bacon is largely degraded lignin.”

Translation: Cooking over charcoal makes your food taste like bacon. Let me repeat that: blah blah charcoal blah blah BACON.

Gas, no doubt, is not taking this lying down. Three little letters: H-C-A.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes:

…when meat products are cooked over high temperatures or touched by flames and smoke, they form certain chemical compounds, specifically Heterocyclic Amines (HCA) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), which are deemed to be carcinogenic.

HCAs, also found in cigarette smoke, have been reported to cause cancer in a number of inner organs, including the stomach and liver, and also the skin. PAHs, the second type, form when meat juices drip onto coals or other hot surfaces, creating smoke. The carcinogens in the smoke then attach themselves to the outside of the foods they come in contact with.

Go on…

Barbecuing, especially when using a charcoal grill, produces the highest amount of HCAs, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis, Cancer Center, who conducted studies on the subject. Using a gas grill instead, or pan-frying and broiling are somewhat safer but not by much. Baking, poaching, stir-frying and stewing, they say, are considerably less harmful.

  • So your choice is whether to live longer or enjoy the life you have? I’ll pick the latter. Go charcoal!

  • Stuart Edeal

    Bob, If you grill the way my neighbors do, you will never taste the “Guaiacol” since they SOAK their charcoal in lighter fluid before cooking. The nasty smell of aliphatic petroleum fills the air for blocks around.

    I prefer my trusty gas grill – makes the best steaks I have ever consumed.

  • My wife and I rode the bikes around Minnehaha yesterday. It was a wonderful scene (well, except for the bikers who insist on being able to use a busy park path for high-speed racing on July 4th) of people grilling and having fun and the smells were so delightful from the grills. It was a bad idea not to have had something to eat before we went, as nobody invited us to be their new friends. :*)