Imagine yourself as a visitor from another planet who's been invited to a Fourth of July barbecue. Your hosts have asked you to bring something to grill, but you have no idea what they eat on Earth in the 21st century. So before you head for the market, you pick up some magazines, hoping to get the low-down on American cuisine.
The first thing you notice are lots of color ads for hamburgers, chicken and hot dogs, apparently popular holiday foods. But in between the pictures are some pretty upsetting articles.
On one page, there's a story about how doctors have linked meat consumption to cancer. On another page, you read about recalls of contaminated cold cuts. Further on, you see a piece about how the Union of Concerned Scientists has ranked meat production the second-most devastating thing humans do the environment (after driving cars).
You start to wonder if Earthlings have a death wish.
From my perspective as a physician and nutrition researcher, it sometimes seems as if our culture really must be suicidal. How else can one explain that the typical American consumes almost twice his or her weight in meat each year despite overwhelming evidence that meat is bad for us? Especially in light of all the new studies showing that plant foods contain cancer-preventing compounds.
This season, newspapers are filled with "helpful" advice on how to finagle protection from the hazards of undercooked meat. Even the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council offers "tips for a safe and delicious summer barbecue" in its press release about projected hot dog sales.
You certainly don't want to eat it raw. But even the simple advice to "cook meat thoroughly" has turned into a minefield. Meat-borne listeria bacteria took the lives of 21 Americans in just one 1999 incident, an outbreak tied to Sara Lee hot dogs and deli meats. A meat-industry press release even suggests that high-risk diners (among them pregnant women and the elderly) should use a thermometer when cooking sausages, and a federal booklet actually recommends that at-risk diners reheat cold cuts before eating them.
However, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1998 found that women eating beef and bacon cooked until very well-done have more than four times the breast cancer risk as women who eat rare- or medium-cooked meats. The culprit? Looks like a family of carcinogens called heterocyclic amines gets the blame. Heating animal proteins forms these cancer-causing chemicals. The more you cook it, the more you leap from the fry pan into the fire.
Our interplanetary visitor can still salvage his Earth trip without bypassing a barbecue. These days, there's a wonderful array of alternatives to greasy steaks, questionable hot dogs and the same-old grilled chicken. Stores and cookbooks burst with delicious non-meat options, from ready-to-grill garden burgers to portobello steaks, from tofu satay to fruit kabobs. Put these vegetarian items on your menus and you can really feel good about what you're serving.
So this Fourth of July, why not declare your independence from the uninspired and less-than-healthy barbecue menu?
You might just find the alternative out of this world!
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Neal D. Barnard is founder of the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (c) 2001, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.