Barbecued Meat and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)


During barbecue, food rich in fat and protein, like meat and chicken wings, undergoes chemical reactions when grilled or roasted at high temperatures, which tend to release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).


What are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)?

  • PAHs can be generated by incomplete combustion of fuel and organic substances. They are a kind of pollutants present in the environment, such as in the air, soil and water, etc.
  • Food products that go through dry heat cooking procedures, like roasting and grilling, can generate PAHs. Food rich in fat and protein (e.g. meat) generate more PAHs during pyrolysis, whereas charred food and over-fried food have an even higher level of PAHs.

What are the health hazards of PAHs?

PAHs are either excreted or form active metabolites after going through the metabolism in human body. The active metabolites are considered to be related to the potential carcinogenicity of PAHs. According to the assessment conducted by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the effect of dietary intake of PAHs on human health are likely to be insignificant under normal circumstances. However, JECFA recommends that efforts should be made to minimise the intake of PAHs as far as practicable.


We should observe the followings to reduce excessive intake of PAHs and other harmful substances in barbecued food:

  • After lighting a fire or adding charcoal to it, wait until the fire temperature becomes stable and without giving out smoke. Adjust the distribution of charcoal to make an even fire before barbecuing food.
  • Avoid direct contact of food with flame. Prevent fat and juice of meat from dripping onto the heat source to produce smoke that contains harmful substances.
  • Remove the skin and the visible fatty parts of meat before barbecuing to reduce the amount of fat.
  • Brush honey or sauces onto the meat after it is thoroughly grilled to reduce the harmful substances possibly produced by the honey and sauces when they are exposed to high temperature.