How to braai healthier
“They can take our electricity, but they will never take our braai.” This sentence is from a meme, and you’ll search long and hard for a more accurate description of life in South Africa.
If you were to ask a braai-fanatic whether grilled meat is healthy, you will likely be informed to stop asking silly questions, of course it is.
But, in an increasingly health-conscious world, it’s worth taking a closer look at what your favourite cut does to your health.
Potential benefits of braai meat
Celebrations, mourning, boredom, good weather, bad weather, no electricity – all of these, and more, are considered good reasons to light the fire if you are South African.
We like meat, most kinds, and just to keep a balance we serve it with a potato salad or a garlic roll on the side.
The hardcore braai-brigade will tell you that salad is unnecessary, because chicken is in fact considered a vegetable. A braaibroodjie is non-negotiable though.
Along with the joy of a crackling fire, meat is a valuable source of nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Protein helps your body to build and repair muscles and bones and to make hormones and enzymes.
Iron assists with carrying oxygen around in your body, and zinc keeps your immune system strong and vitamin B12 supports your nervous system.
All of this might sound like great news, but don’t light that celebratory fire quite yet. You can have too much of a good thing, and we shouldn’t ignore the risks of too much braai meat.
Is braai meat dangerous for your health?
Sadly, the short answer is yes. The biggest risk occurs for those who braai regularly, and let’s face it, that is quite a large number of us. There are four main ways in which that choppie can harm you:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (PAHs).
This is a substance that is formed when fat drips onto the coals and causes excess smoke. The smoke then transfers cancer-causing PAHs to your meat.
The dangerous effect of smoke on meat was already noticed in the 1960s in Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe. Smoking was a popular way to preserve meat and fish back then in these countries.
At that time, a connection between these foods and stomach cancer was noted. Newer research linked smoked meat to other cancers as well, such as breast cancer.
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
These form during the process of grilling over a high heat. The high temperature changes the shape of the protein structure in the meat, turning it into a carcinogenic chemical.
HCAs have been linked to breast, stomach, prostate and colon cancer. Both HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic, which means they are able to cause DNA changes that may increase your risk of getting cancer.
- Red meat
For many years we have been warned that red meat is the enemy. It can potentially cause cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and premature death. Interestingly, recent studies have claimed that this is not the case.
“The evidence for a direct vascular or health risk from eating meat regularly is very low, to the point that there is probably no risk,” said Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist.
Not everyone was happy with that statement and the debate rages on. Another factor is that fatty cuts can cause havoc with your cholesterol levels.
So should you eat red meat or not? The simple answer is that lowering your intake will lower your risks. Enjoy red meat in moderation.
- Processed meat
Processed meat refers to all meat that has been processed in some way to preserve or flavour it. It includes salami, ham, bacon, the biltong you nibble on before the braai and the wors that has to be part of every braai.
Smoked, salted, cured, dried or canned – or processed meats should come with a warning label. Studies consistently find strong links between consumption of processed meat and various chronic diseases.
These include high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bowel and stomach cancer.
Sodium nitrite is added to processed meat products to preserve the colour of the meat, to improve flavour and to prevent the growth of bacteria that could lead to food poisoning.
When exposed to high temperatures, sodium nitrite forms N-nitroso compounds, and these are responsible for causing cancer.
The International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC) announced in 2015 that processed meat has been classified as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer, and red meat as a ‘probable’ cause.
It is recommended that we eat red meat in moderation, and try to avoid processed meat as much as possible.
So should you stop braaiing?
Let’s be realistic, we all know that’s not going to happen. But, none of us are getting younger, and at some point concerns about our health start creeping in.
If that describes you, the good news is that you can still have your braai. South Africans are creative chefs and that is certainly true around the fire as well.
There’s a lot you can do to create a braai that is healthier, but still delicious.
13 tips for a healthier braai
- Choose fish and chicken (it’s not a vegetable, we promise) more often than red meat.
- Cut down the amount of braais you have every week. If you braai every day, try cutting down to three or four days a week. It will be strange in the beginning, but you will adjust.
- Line your braai grid with foil, and poke small holes in it. This way the fat can still drip off, but some of the smoke is blocked from reaching the meat.
- Stay away from thich, sugary marinades that may cause charring.
- Instead, try marinating your meat with beer for four to six hours, especially darker types of beer. Interestingly, this has been found to lower the development of cancer-causing agents on your meat.
- Another healthier marinade option is using a combination of olive oil, vinegar and spices. Ingredients that work well include lemon juice, cider vinegar, mustard, garlic, onions, black pepper and rosemary.
- Less fat means less smoke, so go for leaner cuts of meat. Remove the fat, or at least some of the fat, from fatty cuts.
- Flipping your meat often to prevent charring will help reduce HCA formation.
- Reducing the cooking time will cause less HCA to form. Therefore rare and medium steaks are better than well done. Smaller cuts of meat also cook faster.
Always thaw meat before putting it on the braai, and consider partially cooking meat before grilling.
- Clean your grill by scraping off charred residue before lighting your next fire.
- Don’t eat blackened bits of meat, and remove chicken skin.
- Try putting some vegetables on the braai, it really tastes great. And, you can safely eat charred vegetables. They have different proteins that are not affected the same way as meat protein.
- Place your food at least 15 cm away from the fire.
- Choose healthier snacks to nibble on before the braai. Biltong, chips and dip will not do your body any favours.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
There are risks, but US nutritionist Stacy Kennedy says that your risk of getting cancer from braai meat is very low if you follow proper safety tips.
“Being overweight is a far greater risk factor for developing cancer than the consumption of grilled foods,” she says.
I reckon that’s a good enough reason to light up the braai.