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BBQ’s and the Health Risks

Along with a trip to the seaside, barbecues come top of most people’s list of favourite things to do during the hot summer months. Nothing beats the taste of barbecued food, and after a hard week at work, a lazy weekend in the garden with a beer and a burger can be just what the doctor ordered. However, doctors also want you to stay healthy, and that doesn’t just mean you should watch the fat content of the burgers you grill. There are a few health risks associated with barbecuing that you should be aware of, and taking the appropriate precautions means you can enjoy outdoor dining without putting yourself in harm’s way.

When setting up your barbecue, the most important thing to bear in mind is the risk of fire. First of all, make sure your barbecue is in good working order, and set it up on a firm, flat surface. Keep it well away from trees, shrubs, or anything flammable, and keep a bucket of water nearby, just in case something goes wrong. Once the barbecue is going, don’t leave it unattended at any point, and make sure that kids and pets stay at a safe distance. Finally, when you’ve finished with the barbecue, make sure it has fully cooled before trying to move it, or you might get a nasty burn!

Beyond the general safety tips, there are other guidelines to bear in mind, depending on the type of barbecue you have. If you have a charcoal barbecue, be sure not to put in too much coal – a depth of about two inches is more than enough. To get it going, only use starter fuel or recognised fire lighters. Use as little as possible, and never ever use petrol! Only start cooking when the coals are hot enough – if they’re glowing red with a powdery grey surface, then you’re good to go. And when emptying the barbecue, make sure the ash has cooled before putting it in the bin.

Gas barbecues are easier to light safely, but still need to be treated with care, particularly when changing the cylinder. Before a change, pick a well ventilated area, and make sure you have the gas tap turned off. If you think you’ve got a leak in the cylinder, sponge some soapy water around the joints, and look for bubbles. A leak can be fixed by tightening the joint, but take care not to over-tighten, and this can cause the joint to break. Finally, when you’ve finished cooking, turn off the gas cylinder first. This makes sure that all residual gas is used up before the barbecue is turned off.

Apart from fire safety, there are other barbecue-related health hazards related to the food itself. The main thing to watch out for is food poisoning, which can occur when food is not cooked properly, or when bacteria cross-contaminate from raw meat. Although most adults usually recover from food poisoning after a couple of days, it can be far more dangerous to those with weaker immune systems. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable, so take care when cooking for little people or your Mum and Dad. Although red meat can be served rare, the outside still needs to be cooked properly in order to kill any bacteria. Anything else should be cooked all the way through before serving – that includes white meat, sausages, burgers and any other minced meat products. Even if the outside of the meat is charred or blackened, it might not be cooked all the way through, so cut each piece at the thickest part to check. It the juices run clear, and you can’t see any pink bits, it should be safe to serve. To avoid an undercooked middle, make sure frozen meat is fully thawed before you start cooking, and then regularly move it around the barbecue to cook evenly. If you don’t feel confident, you can always part-cook your meat in an oven first, then transfer it to the barbecue to give it that unique taste.

As well as undercooking, food poisoning can be caused when germs transfer from raw meat to cooked food. Bacteria can range from E.coli to salmonella, so it’s best to take all possible precautions. Firstly, keep all raw meat on a separate plate from cooked food, and use a separate set of tongs to transfer it to the barbecue. If you’re using your hands, make sure you keep washing them, or germs will contaminate anything you touch. When moving raw meat onto the barbecue, try to keep it away from food that is nearly ready to serve. Finally, try to keep food cool, don’t leave it in the sun, and don’t keep it out of the fridge for more than a couple of hours. This particularly applies to any food that won’t be cooked on the barbecue, such as dips, coleslaw, salads and sandwiches.

On top of food poisoning, new research suggests that barbecuing food can produce carcinogens, which are linked to cancer. According to this research, there are two different types of carcinogens that form on barbecued food, the first of which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are created when fat drips onto hot coals, which then rises on smoke and settles on food. The second group of carcinogens are heterocyclic amines, which form on ‘muscle meats’ when amino acids react with creatine. HCAs are produced in greater numbers at higher cooking temperatures, and longer cooking times. HCA production is not just a problem when barbecuing – pan-frying and broiling meat can also cause them to appear.

Although there is no hard and fast way to avoid these carcinogens altogether, you can cut down on your exposure to them. Choosing leaner meat, cutting meat into smaller pieces, and frequent flipping are all good ways to limit carcinogenic build up. Also, pre-cooking in a microwave for a couple of minutes can reduce HCA production by up to 90%, according to some research. It may take a little more time, but if it keeps you healthy, it’s certainly worth making the effort.