Is Charcoal Grilling Bad for People with Asthma?
Last updated: May 2022
It’s summer! Many people look forward to warmer weather, longer days, and sunshine. I, however, do not enjoy summer; the heat and humidity can trigger my asthma and bug bites make me itch like crazy! One popular summer activity is grilling food and/or attending a barbecue. I have heard that grilling is good for you and I have heard that grilling is bad for you. Of course, the smoke and aromas from grilling can irritate your lungs, but is grilling actually a healthier way to eat? Let’s look at the pros and cons of charcoal grilling and asthma.
Grilling is a healthy way to prepare some foods
Grilling (and smoking) can certainly be a healthy way to cook foods if you choose healthy foods to begin with. You don’t need butter, there’s no batter or added coating, and olive oil is optional. Grilling always imparts delicious flavor. Also, who doesn’t love seeing those grill marks on their food? Vegetables, fruit, and fish are all healthy options for the grill. Grilled pineapple? Delicious.
However, sausages, bratwursts, hot dogs, and steaks are grilling favorites. They contain high amounts of calories, fat, and nitrates - which are not the healthiest choices (nitrates can definitely trigger asthma).
Charcoal and wood grills or smokers burn "dirty"
Both charcoal and wood-burning grills (or smokers) are considered "dirty" because they create tiny soot particles that not only pollute the air, but can deposit deep into your lungs and cause irritation. Propane grills are better for your lungs, and natural gas grills will burn the cleanest.
Remember to stand to the side of the grill when you open the cover of any grill. The smoke, heat, and aromas can be overpowering.
Charcoal grilling meat creates carcinogens
Hamburgers and steaks are also a grilling staple. However, when the fat drips down from the meat into the grill (especially onto charcoal), cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons(PAHs) are released. When meats are cooked at high temperatures they naturally produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs, also found in cigarette smoke), which are also not good for you. Using thick BBQ sauces with sugar and charring your meat will increase the HCAs, so keep the flames low and avoid commercial sauces.
Science has not yet determined what level of exposure to these chemicals is dangerous, but it's better to err on the side of caution.
Marinades increase flavor and reduce harmful compounds. A study by the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that steaks marinated overnight in turmeric and garlic marinade had reduced harmful compounds by half when cooked for 15 minutes. Herbs such as rosemary and mint brushed on beef also significantly reduced HCA levels.1
Tips for healthier grilling to lessen carcinogens
Avoid using lighter fluid and stay upwind from the grill smoke. Keep the flames low to avoid charring. Use a spray bottle with water to calm flames. Marinate meats for a few hours in a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, oregano, salt, and pepper. Trim the excess fat off of meat to avoid it from dripping into the flames, and cook to medium instead of well done. You can also cook meat in aluminum foil packets to avoid charring and dripping.
Do you avoid grilling due to your asthma? Let us know how you manage your asthma during BBQ season in the comments below!
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