Benzopyrenes in barbecues: how to prevent your food from having them?

Summer, time for barbecues and cold foods such as roast beef, smoked, grilled or spit-grilled sardines and many other delicacies, has a hidden risk in benzopyrenes, present in certain foods that have followed cooking processes with smoke or high temperatures. These are potentially carcinogenic compounds, according to the WHO, which has recommended avoiding them since 2001.

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Learn more about benzopyrenes

What are benzopyrenes?

Benzopyrenes belong to the family of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a type of compound found in nature as a result of the degradation of organic matter rich in fats and proteins, as well as in the flavourings of plants. Most PAHs are not dangerous for our health, at least in the carcinogenic aspect, because although they can have an unpleasant smell or be poisonous for other reasons, there is no risk of them entering our body.

But in the case of benzopyrenes there is a risk of penetration, and in fact it is known that they are one of the main responsible for lung cancer in smokers. However, they also pose a risk to non-smokers, as they have a strong presence in certain foods, although they tend to be in the vast majority, a product of industrial activity, but not in large quantities.

In fact, they jumped to the front page of the media when in 2001 the Czech Republic returned a consignment of Spanish pomace oil for the presence of these compounds above the levels recommended by the WHO. That case, due to the high temperature heat treatment of the oil, led to a 60% drop in the consumption of pomace oil and forced the modernisation of production technologies.

However, in reality, it is not in the oils where there is a real risk, but in foods such as fatty meats and fish cooked over an open fire, grilled or smoked. In the first case because when cooking temperatures exceed 300ºC, the production of benzopyrenes in fat and protein is triggered, although not in carbohydrates.

In the case of smoked foods, because the smoke from the charcoal combustion emits benzopyrenes that adhere to the meat, although in less proportion than in the case of grills and wood-fired roasts, as well as sardine skewers on open fires, etc. In fact, AECOSAN sets a maximum of PAHs in commercial smoked meats.

Can I avoid benzopyrenes in my barbecue food?

Once they have been created or adhered, it is not possible to eliminate benzopyrenes by any method that does not involve the total destruction of the food. Thus, our main objective should be to avoid them as far as possible or at least reduce their presence to minimal amounts.

To do this we will take a series of consistent measures from the point of view of food safety, however much some expert barbecue enthusiasts may denigrate them:

  • We will avoid priming the barbecue with too much charcoal, in order to procure us a distance between the grill and the heat source, which allows the contact temperature with the meats is not higher than 300ºC.
  • Clean the grills thoroughly before and after use, as the remains of gauze and semi-carbonized meat are rich in benzopyrenes, which in contact with the meat, will pass to it.
  • We will wait until the ember has stopped releasing flame to put the meat on the grill. It is important to avoid the caress of the flame on the white or pink meat.
  • As far as possible, avoid brushing meat and fish with oil, as this increases the incidence of benzopyrenes as well as rekindling the flame by dripping on the grill.
  • We must take extreme precautions when the food is very fatty and protein at the same time. Such is the case of sardines.
  • It is also recommended to avoid the use of paraffin to light barbecues.

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