Barbecuing with Wood- Know the Risks!
Knowing Your Smoking Woods is Important Before You Cook
Let me begin by emphasizing that we have a lot more research to do on woods used for cooking! There has been a great deal of attention to developing countries who, out of necessity, have to rely on wood fires for cooking to survive.
I’m going to first relate the information on why the risks in North America are not the same as developing countries and then I will highlight the top six (6) potential reactions we face when using specific woods for cooking. This will be generalized reactions to wood compounds and not the direct result of a specific cooking technique.
Developing countries generally use very primitive equipment for cooking the daily meals needed to sustain families. The simplest method is with three large stones to contain the fire with a pot or other metal container placed on top for the cooking. The fires are fueled with solid materials like coal, wood, dung, and crop waste. All these materials release harmful particles into the air as they burn. Here’s the issue: they employ this cooking set up INDOORS, where they live which generally is in homes constructed from thatch, mud, and/or animal skins. Chimneys may not be present or if present, have no flue to draw the contaminated air out.
What results from the exposure to smoke from cooking daily in these situations?
- Respiratory Infections
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
- Ocular Disorders
- Lung Cancer and Upper Airway Cancers
- Death (from long-standing exposure)
In North America, we view wood-fired cooking as entertainment as we are blessed with having other options for our primary cooking needs, specifically, gas, electric and convection cooking equipment. Our equipment is built from high end materials with proper ventilation key to installing and using this equipment. All our cooking can be done safely with minimal exposure for the health risks listed above.
Most of us engage in wood-fired cooking outside, where the particulate matter of smoke cannot accumulate in one area lowering our risks for compromised health. Restaurants who include wood-fired menu items do so by having specialized ventilation that must pass rigorous inspection. All this ensures that we don’t suffer the same consequences as these developing countries.
The question is: are there any other variables that put us at risk when we cook with wood even outdoors?
I’m going to pick some of the most popular woods to cook with in North America and isolate some of the potential concerns with these woods. I will list these by two categories: fruit wood and hardwood.
In this group, I’ll include Apple, Cherry, Grape, Peach, Pear as these tend to be the favorite fruit woods to use for wood-fired cooking. Let’s address the gorilla in the room first– pesticides.
Like the fruit these trees produce, the wood absorbs the pesticides that are applied to the trees. Eat a non-organic apple (keep in mind organic produce also is exposed to pesticides but usually these are natural derivatives and not synthetic), wash it, and you will still absorb any pesticide that has been absorbed into the actual fruit meat. Same is true for the tree. Pesticide applications embed into the soil base of the tree, which then enters the root system, and is on the way to the other parts of the tree. Now let’s be clear, pesticides can also become air born as they turn into a vapor and travel with air. Bark of any tree is a great absorber of these air particles. Once pesticides enter the human body, they are stored in the colon.
For the Prunus Armeniaca family which includes ornamental cherry, peach, plum, and apricot trees and shrubs, it is the stems, leaves, and seeds that pose the greatest risk if these are consumed by animals, even the dog and cat. Cyanide is present and can be lethal to animals so if you bring in wood with bark and/or leaves intact, be sure these are away from all animals.
Popular hardwoods to use for cooking include Beech(nut), Cedar, Alder, Pecan, Mesquite, Hickory, Maple, and Oak. For all these woods as well as the fruit woods, dust irritation in the form of rhinitis and general respiratory reaction is a given. Wood dust is an irritant. How people react to the dust is dependent on each person’s immune system. You should make every attempt to purchase wood for cooking that is clean of dust, particularly for wood chips. Often sellers of wood chips don’t screen the product sold and you can often end up with a bag or box full of wood dust. This will certainly aggravate most respiratory systems and potentially could exacerbate already compromised systems.
Many hardwoods trigger pollen sensitivities. New research in the areas of allergens and immunology are beginning to show that many allergens survive combustion or wood burning when used in cooking and trigger the same allergic reaction or sensitivities as a pollen sensitivity.
Of the hardwood listed above, these are the noted potential reactions:
Alder: dermatitis, rhinitis, bronchial effects, eye irritation
Apple: seeds contain cyanogenic (cyanide), pesticide risk/reaction
Beech: irritant likely from bark lichens, dust, leaves
Cedar: allergic contact dermatitis
Grape: pesticide risk/reaction
Hickory: irritant from dust
Peach: pesticide risk/reaction
Pear: pesticide risk/reaction
Pecan: irritant from dust; high level of ethanol extract in bark
Maple: irritant, asthma, sensitizer
Mesquite: dermatitis, coughing, respiratory
Oak: irritant, sensitizer, asthma, eye irritation, dermatitis
I’ve highlighted only those hardwoods that have gained popularity as a cooking or grilling wood. In future articles, we will explore the hazards of using woods that are less common and more toxic. Don’t assume just because you’re cooking outdoors, the risks are few. Be informed on the wood choice before you make a lethal mistake.
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Written by the SmokinLicious® Culinary Team offering tips, techniques, and recipes about wood, ember, and smoking cooking.