Grilling with charcoal is a popular pastime for many Americans in warm weather months. Cooking with charcoal is popular because charcoal grills are less expensive than gas grills. Some individuals prefer the flavor of charcoal cook foods over foods cooked with gas. There is some controversy surrounding the health effects of cooking with charcoal and whether or not it raises the risk of developing cancer. A definitive answer regarding possible safety concerns with charcoal grilling has not been established by the scientific or medical community.
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Benefits of Grilling
Grilling foods can be a healthy alternative when prepared properly. Grilled foods, including those cooked on a charcoal grill, have less fat than foods cooked in a pan because the fat is able to drip away. Grilled foods can be seasoned with dry rubs that do not impart added fat from oils or dressings. Grilling itself also imparts additional flavor to the food that isn't present when cooked indoors.
High Temperature Cooking Problems
Cooking foods at high temperatures, such as on a charcoal grill, produces a substance known as heterocyclic amines, also known as HCAs, in the food. HCAs have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, but scientists don't know if they have the same effects on humans. Researchers at Penn State explain that eating grilled foods occasionally is unlikely to cause a problem. Additionally, when foods are fried, baked, broiled or roasted, low levels of HCAs also form, so the problem isn't limited to grilling alone.
Dangers of Charcoal
Grilling with charcoal can be dangerous if not done properly. Using too much lighter fluid, or substances such as gasoline and other flammables to ignite the charcoal could result in very serious burns. Using a charcoal grill in an enclosed space can cause carbon monoxide poisoning that can result in death. Operating a charcoal grill too close to a house or other building could result in damage to the building if an uncontrollable fire were to occur. Always follow the safety instructions that came with your grill and grill your foods outside in an open space away from other buildings.
The University of Virginia recommends grilling vegetables and small cuts of meat that cook more quickly, reducing the amount of HCAs created in the food. Although the effects of charcoal cooking aren't known on humans, to lessen any potential effects, marinate meats prior to grilling. This step may reduce potentially cancer causing HCAs by 90 percent. Finally, when grilling over charcoal, trim excess fat from the meat to avoid flare-ups while cooking that can burn and char the food.