Eating Well During BBQ Season

(As featured in The Telegram on Monday, May 30th 2011)

Barbecued food, like almost any other, can be healthy. This is highly dependent on what we cook and how we do so. AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, are substances which can be produced by our bodies, but can also, unfortunately, come from the food we eat and have been associated with heart and kidney disease, diabetes and even Alzheimer's. Once in our bodies, by whatever means, they tend to build up over time. This makes it difficult to get rid of these compounds. AGEs are formed through cooking at high temperatures, allowing the natural protein and fat in food to react with sugar. They often give foods their recognizable flavour, smell and color. In general, fried, grilled and barbecued foods will be higher in AGEs and raw, unprocessed foods will be lower. Processed foods are often exposed to high temperatures during processing (hence the AGEs relation).

Since AGEs can have a significant impact on diabetes and health in general, it's suggested to try the following methods to decrease AGEs in the diet:

  1. Eat smaller portions and fewer servings of foods high in fat and protein. Referring to the serving sizes recommended by Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide can also be helpful as it can control our intake.
  2. Try cooking methods such as steaming, poaching, braising, boiling, stewing and roasting with liquid. These methods tend to use a lower temperature, add moisture to foods and use little or no additional fat (all good to decrease AGE content). Little to no additional fat includes cutting off any visible fat prior to cooking. Leaving on meat or poultry fat while barbecuing is a bad idea. Cancer-causing compounds can be formed when fat drips onto hot coals or stones when you barbecue. These chemicals can then be placed back onto food by smoke and flare-ups.
  3. Marinating with acids such as citrus juice and vinegar not only adds flavour but helps to tenderize and reduce the cooking time. Don't forget herbs and spices are also great additions. Using unsweetened and unsalted marinades more often is a good choice too.
  4. Food should be cooked enough to eliminate harmful bacteria without producing char. Partially cooking in the microwave first to reduce the amount of time on the barbecue is an idea. High-heat cooking methods can cause muscle meats (think red meat, poultry and fish) to produce more cancer-promoting compounds. The longer the meat cooks at high temperatures, the more these compounds are formed.
  5. Enjoy vegetables and fruit and vegetable-based protein products more often as an alternative to animal-based protein foods. Vegetables and fruits are naturally low in AGEs and their antioxidants help to counteract any AGE related damage! A different but family friendly idea is to have fruit or vegetable kebabs on the grill. Onions, peppers, mushrooms, and zucchini can be on kebabs alone as a side, or even alternated with simultaneous grilled meat/poultry for a light and tasty alternative. A tropical fruit salsa also goes nice with grilled fish, poultry or pork. Grilled hard fruits like pineapple, apples, nectarines, and pears make easy, delicious desserts.

You may be thinking, 'I love to barbecue. It helps to decrease fat, which, in turn is good for my waistline and heart health.' This is ok and can be true but you should try poaching, boiling, stewing and steaming more often. They are healthful cooking methods and will also be less likely to promote unwanted chemical formation. Barbecuing is like any other indulgence where we should abide by 'Everything in moderation.'