BBQ Wood Chips or Charcoal? Flavor, Health Risks And Choices

Kingsford Charcoal BriquettesWhile most people prefer to barbecue with charcoal, there are a few advantages to using wood chips even with a gas grill. For one, wood chips are an inexpensive (and quick) way to add flavor to what you are grilling. Soaking a few chips and throwing them into your grill are mere pennies compared to a bag of briquettes. You can also add a variety of flavors such as hickory, mesquite or even cherry wood or cedar.

Another reason to use barbeque wood chips is because most people think it’s healthier than charcoal. This assumption isn’t necessarily true. Charcoal briquettes, when used properly is just as safe as wood chips, however it all comes down to flavor. Personally, I prefer wood chips over charcoal, however charcoal does have it’s place in the world of barbecuing.

Just like wood chips are just that — chips of wood. Charcoals are actually made up of wood as well. There are also many kinds of charcoal and each is made differently. Charcoal briquettes are made up of sawdust and low quality woods that are burned to a carbon state and then compressed with a starch binder. Get what I’m talking about when I say I prefer wood chips? There may also be ground coal to help briquettes burn.

There are also the types of briquettes that have additives that make them burn faster or light quicker. Some of these products have petroleum that may have a health risk when not used properly. In addition, some people may think these additives make their food taste unpleasant.

I did some research on using charcoal and health risks and found that you have a better chance of not having any harmfulOak Wood Chips effects if you stick with so-called natural charcoal brands. These are brands such as Sierra Madre which is 100% oak hardwood charcoal, which contain no coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust or petroleum products. This charcoal is also certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program. This product is available at select Sam’s Clubs across the U.S. Other manufacturers of all natural charcoal include Greenlink and Lazzari which you can find in natural food stores across North America.

Lazzari Mesquite CharcoalJust recently — by recently I mean within the past 5-10 years or so, we’ve heard on the news about charcoal grilling may pose cancer risks. According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat from meat drips onto the charcoal. The grilling of meat can form two kinds of potentially carcinogenic compounds: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Some of these harmful compounds can rise with the smoke and can get deposited onto the food. They can also form directly on the food when it is charred. This means, the hotter the grill and the longer the meat stays on the grill, more HCAs are formed.

Now I didn’t mean to get away from what my article was supposed to be about, however I thought it was necessary to fill you in on the hazards of over-grilling and the use of charcoal. In conclusion, both charcoal and wood chips have their place in the BBQ world, however if I had a choice to flavor my BBQ (besides sauces, rubs and marinades), it would be natural wood. If I were to use charcoal, it’s all-natural for me. Though lump charcoal could give you flavor without the health risks. Either way… Enjoy barbecuing whether you use wood chips or charcoal — Just do it safely!

About A.J.

Owner and creator of Worked in the BBQ industry since 1987. No longer in the restaurant business, however I am enjoying experimenting at home smoking, grilling, barbecuing and writing about my experiences here on!
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