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Ranking Barbecue Styles by How (Un)Healthy They Are

Memphis? Hawaiian? Korean? Which big hunks of sweaty meat are least likely to result in me becoming a big hunk of sweaty meat?

While I highly doubt the Founding Fathers could even have come close to fathoming the blasphemous creations modern restaurants have concocted, America was founded on the (bogus) belief that meat promotes good health and indicates economic success. 

So what better way to commemorate this indulgent sentiment than with a gargantuan plate of barbecue!

Our uncompromising obsession with cooking animals in every way possible has resulted in the evolution of numerous approaches to barbecue, and while most people these days can agree that consuming heaping portions of saucy meat is unhealthy, some of the ways they’re served are perhaps a little bit healthier than others. With this faint hope in mind, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank an assortment of barbecue styles by how unhealthy they are — from kinda unhealthy to death-inducing.

Predictably, Hunnes immediately emphasizes that barbecue is never healthy. “These aren’t healthy due to the type of proteins they are,” she explains. “Animal proteins, and especially red meats, are possible carcinogens and tumor promoters. The way these meats are cooked can also contribute to their lack of healthiness. When meats are grilled or barbecued over a flame, heterocyclic amines, which are carcinogenic, can form. So I’d never recommend anyone eat this way on a regular basis.” If you must have barbecue, Hunnes recommends doing so less than once a month.

Before diving into the health differences between barbecue styles, though, I want to quickly touch on the various food elements incorporated in each prominent one, just so we’re all clear what we’re talking about:

  • Memphis Barbecue: Memphis-style barbecue focuses on slow-cooked pork. If you had to sum up this barbecue style with a single dish, it would be pork ribs with a paprika-based spice rub and possibly some classic barbecue sauce served on the side.
  • Texas Barbecue: Texas is home to four different prominent barbecue styles: East Texans marinate their meat in a sweet, tomato-based sauce; Central Texans cook their meat over indirect heat with salt and pepper; West Texans cook their meat over direct heat; and South Texans incorporate thick, molasses-like sauces. Potato salad is also a popular side dish in Texas.
  • Kansas City Barbecue: Kansas City barbecue is famously slathered with a thick ketchup- and molasses-based sauce and served with a side of French fries. Baked beans and coleslaw are also common side dishes here.
  • Carolinas Barbecue: Similar to Memphis, the Carolinas also put an emphasis on pork, and they’re famous for their vinegar- and mustard-based sauces.
  • Alabama Barbecue: Alabama barbecue is famous for its white sauce, which is made with loads of mayonnaise, vinegar and sometimes sugar, among other more secretive ingredients, depending on the establishment.
  • Hawaiian Barbecue: Once again, Hawaiians go hard on the pork, and they often serve their barbecue with sides of white rice and macaroni salad.
  • Korean Barbecue: Korean barbecue is perhaps most famous for the fact that patrons often cook the meat themselves on grills built into the tables. But Korean barbecue also consists of a unique assortment of side dishes called banchan, which include the likes of kimchi, cucumber salad and pickled radish.

As for actually ranking these barbecue styles, Hunnes admits that doing so in our usual way — as an ordered list — isn’t really possible. They all rely on most of the same meats, which we already know are just plain bad for you, and use similar cooking methods to boot. Instead, then, we’ll be exploring these methods and their constituents in a broader sense.

Let’s begin by looking at the side dishes, which are key elements of most barbecue styles that play a massive role in how healthy the whole meal is. “Korean barbecue is probably going to be the healthiest in terms of sides, since it has kimchi, bean sprouts and pickled radishes,” Hunnes explains. “These provide some fiber, are low in calories and provide healthfulness from the fact that some are pickled or fermented, which can help with probiotics and prebiotics in the gut.” In fact, considering these super healthy sides, Korean barbecue is likely the healthiest form of barbecue available. 

As for the mayo-based sides, like potato salad and macaroni salad, Hunnes says those are no good. “Potato salad isn’t really going to provide much in the way of healthfulness,” she explains. “It’s mayo-based and heavy in calories. It at least provides some potassium from the potatoes to counteract the high salt content from the meat, but not likely enough.”

The common Hawaiian barbecue sides face the same unhealthy fate. “Hawaiian barbecue is served with macaroni salad, which again has basically no health benefits,” Hunnes confirms. “It’s mostly white flour served in a high-calorie, mayo-based sauce with no fiber. The same can be said about white rice: It just turns into sugar without any fiber.”

The sides that come along with Kansas City barbecue — and some other barbecue styles, depending on the restaurant — meanwhile, might actually be worth indulging in for your health (obviously skip the fries, though). “The baked beans and coleslaw served with Kansas City barbecue are going to at least be a little healthier, since they’re vegetables and beans are high in fiber,” says Hunnes. Again, though, that depends on how they’re made. “They’re counteracted by the fact that the baked beans are cooked in a sugar sauce and the coleslaw is often mayo-based,” Hunnes explains. “If it’s a vinegar-based coleslaw, all the better.”

The sauces and dry rubs can also play a role in how healthy each barbecue style is. “Dry rubs tend to be lower in calories, but all are high in salt and some are higher in sugar — for example, the East Texas and South Texas sauces, and the Alabama sauce, which also has mayonnaise,” Hunnes explains. “That said, you’re less likely to get those heterocyclic amines with a wet sauce, as opposed to a dry rub, so I suppose you can pick your poison.” Who knew wet sauces were helping to prevent cancer?

All in all, your best bet, if you want to keep things healthy, is to go easy on the meat and heavy on any vegetable-based sides. Also, if possible, avoid sauces that are extremely sweet, since chances are, they’re super high in sugar. 

In other words, just, uh, don’t eat barbecue, I guess? Look, I never promised this one was going to be fun.