The great Aussie barbecue has managed to find its way into our collective consciousness as an integral part of summer. Jennifer Paterson sits down at the picnic table to take a closer look at exactly what you're tucking into.
Steaks, onions and sausages - well done with liberal lashings of tomato sauce. Sounds like your idea of culinary heaven? Tasty while it may be, this sort of meal isn't ideal from a nutritional point of view.
Like your meat well done?
Research has suggested that traditional barbecuing methods may not necessarily be the most beneficial way to cook meat. Char-grilling meat has come into the media spotlight over the past few years due to possible carcinogenic substances it may create. The compounds created are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. While carcinogenic, you have to eat huge amounts of these compounds on a regular basis for them to be a problem. Cooking meat too close to the grill will burn it on the outside and leave the inside rare.
While rare meat may be tender, it is important to make sure that you cook your meat evenly - not doing so allows harmful bacteria to grow. The meat must also reach a certain temperature - the best way to ensure that is done is to use a meat "quick read" thermometer.
Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria are transferred from one surface to another. As we often transport food to barbecues, and use multiple plates when cooking, the barbecue is a prime candidate for this type of event to occur. Avoiding cross-contamination is quite simple, and really only involves following a few guidelines:
Use a separate cutting board for meat, vegetables, poultry and fish. Plastic is preferable as it is easier to clean and harbours less bacteria.
Keep foods separate. Juices from raw meats poultry and fish can contaminate other foods. Use a separate plate for raw and cooked foods.
Wash your hands regularly between handling different foods. This is essential for prevention of bacteria transfer.
Clean the grill between each use. Getting rid of debris decreases the risk of exposure to bacteria and potential carcinogens.
What about the rest? Nutritionist Trudy Williams notes that barbecues can be a disaster for your health if you get stuck into really greasy meats.
"The fat and salt in sausages is definitely a health hazard. I would not recommend eating them more than once a week."
It's important to prick them well, or pre-boil them to let some of the fat escape. Many shops also carry low-fat gourmet sausages.
She comments that you should "trim all fat from meat before cooking so that you'll have lean steaks, chops and roasts."
When making rissoles or burgers buy lean mince such as topside, or diet mince. Try kebabs made of lean lamb, chicken or prawns, and vegetarian rissoles made of lentils and soybeans.
Traditional barbecue staples may be easy on the palate, but they provide very few nutritional benefits. Most white breads are made using refined white flour, which loses most of its fibre and vitamin content, particularly vitamins B and E. While alternatives with 'health giving' additives exist, wholemeal and wholegrain alternatives offer many more nutritional benefits.
Tomato sauce contains reasonably high levels of sugar and salt. Trudy comments that this generally isn't a problem for the average individual, unless you are on a diet that suggests you limit your intake of these two additives. She adds that it's easy to add more flavour with alternatives such as "chutneys, Asian style sauces and pickles."
Tips for making your barbecue a little healthier
Using the Healthy Eating Pyramid as a guide is a good place to start when planning a barbecue. The following tips are a simple and effective way to increase the nutritional aspects of what you are eating at a barbecue without sacrificing flavour and enjoyment.
Bread, cereals and rice
Increase your fibre intake by selecting whole-grain breads, whole-grain bagels or pita pockets.
Add extra veggies such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and cucumbers to your steak sandwiches and burgers. Throw in things like baked potatoes and fresh salsas to the barbecue line up.
Bring along a healthy portion of fruit, such as a fruit salad along to the barbecue for a healthy dessert alternative.
Low fat alternatives such as yoghurt make a great alternative to fat-laden toppings such as sour cream, cream and cheese.
Fats, oils and sweets
Flavour foods with herbs and spices rather than added fats and oils. Drizzle a salad with balsamic or flavoured vinegar rather than cream-based toppings. Barbecues are like sandwiches - easy to prepare, so even the kids can help, and not much to clean up afterwards. By following a few of the above suggestions you'll also ensure that your meal is nutritious and safe to eat.