Healthy BBQ Options


Barbecue is basic in Northwest Arkansas, especially in the summer. Can it also be healthy? While healthy BBQ may sound like a contradiction in terms, a few choices can make your next barbecue a healthy meal.


The first health concern for barbecue is the process of grilling or smoking. Studies have shown that high heat methods of cooking, especially if they involve charring the meat, can create a buildup of chemicals called HCA (heterocyclic amines) and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in your meat. Both are recognized as carcinogens.

The HCA develops from creatine when meat is cooked at high heat, so you can get that from a frying pan just as much as from a grill. The PAH’s develop when the meat drips onto the heat source and sends smoke up to the meat. Choosing leaner cuts or putting them on foil or a grilling mat can reduce the chances of getting much PAH.

One study found that marinating meat cut down on HCAs substantially. So does turning meat more often and choosing smaller pieces so they cook with less time on the grill. You can pre-cook your meat and finish it on the grill. A gas grill creates fewer PAHs. A few changes in how you approach the grill can help reduce the health costs of grilling.

As for smoking, cooking meat “low and slow”is not associated with HCAs or PAHs. However, wood smoke can be a concern for PAHs. Smoking at high heat has the same dangers as grilling.

BBQ sauce

The second issue for barbecue is barbecue sauce. Most BBQ sauce is filled with sugar — two tablespoons of a typical sauce contains as much sugar as the American Heart Association says you should have in a whole day. It’s also usually very high in salt. 

Read the labels. You can find ready-made BBQ sauce with different amounts of sugar and salt and make your decision on that basis. 

Make your own BBQ sauce. Here’s a healthy recipe from a vintage cookbook:

  • Melt 2 T butter.
  • Saute 1/3 c. minced onion in the butter.
  • Add 1 t salt and 1 t molasses.
  • Stir in 2 T apple cider vinegar, 1 t. Worcestershire sauce, and 2 T tomato paste.
  • Add 1/2 c. hot water and cook together till thick.

You can also choose a BBQ rub for your meat and reduce the amount of sauce you use.

10 ways to make healthier BBQ choices

  1. Pick leaner meats to begin with — chicken, fish, or lean beef rather than brats or ribs.
  2. Pre-cook or marinate your meats to reduce HCA and PAH.
  3. Wrap chicken or fish with vegetables in a foil packet and cook it on the grill.
  4. Grill fruits and vegetables to get the grilled flavor without harmful chemicals. Pineapple, tomatoes, and thin slices of summer squash are great options to try.
  5. Offer healthy sides like salad with vinaigrette dressing, watermelon, and those grilled fruits and veggies.
  6. Bake potatoes or make oven fries instead of serving chips. Corn on the cob is another hearty vegetable you can cook in the kitchen while you’re grilling. You can also wrap potatoes or corn in foil and cook it on the grill.
  7. Read labels and choose a BBQ sauce with less sugar and salt.
  8. Make your own BBQ sauce and cut the sugar. The old-fashioned recipe above is low in sugar, but you can use any favorite recipe and reduce the sugar by half.
  9. Choose an alternative sauce, such as Sriracha, teriyaki, or yakisoba sauce. Be sure to read the label, or you might find you’re eating just as much sugar as with your BBQ sauce.
  10. Ice cream or pie might be your traditional family desserts for BBQ, but think about offering fresh fruit, too. Some of your guests might be relieved to have a healthier option.

Pick a few of the tips above for a healthier BBQ meal without sacrificing the enjoyment or the tradition.