Wood pellet grills have exploded in popularity in recent years. Despite their growth, and the fact that they’re used to cook food, many pellet manufacturers don’t follow rigorous quality standards. Researchers at Indiana University (IU) did a study that found BBQ pellets can contain an array of contaminants.
Limited research has been done about the relationship between the quality of wood pellets and their impact on human health. It’s an especially important topic for BBQ pellets because you breathe in smoke when cooking and the smoke is what’s adding flavor to your food. It stands to reason that you wouldn’t want impurities in pellets because, according to the IU research, “the presence of contaminants can lead to emissions of carcinogenic compounds and harmful particulate matter suspended in smoke.”
Some of the contaminants found during testing were metal, rust, oils, grease, glues, resin, paint, plastic and tire rubber. These contaminant are introduced into pellets in a variety of ways including the manufacturing process, machinery malfunction, or inadequate wood source material. Some are also intentionally added (plastic and tire rubber) to aid in the ignition process and increase heat.
In IU’s research, they found extreme cases where pellets had more than 20% impurities. Some of these contaminants are so large they can be seen with the naked eye. Below are images from the research that can be seen without and with a microscope.
Images A – C all can be seen without a microscope and D is under a microscope. The contaminants shown in the images are labeled as follows A = ash, Bk = bark, C = coal, Gl = glass, M = metal, O = binder, Pl = plastic.
Quality standards have been developed, though they aren’t required for manufacturers. There are various certifications internationally and The Pellet Fuel Institute (PFI) established United States standards. A search of their website shows that members include Char-Broil, Dansons (Pit Boss, AMAZE-N), Lignetics (Bear Mountain BBQ, Lumber Jack), Traeger, and Weber. There may be others under different names, or that have their own rigorous manufacturing standards.
Bags of BBQ pellets don’t disclose where they’re produced or how, so it’s good to see most of the major players in the pellet market on the list. It’s an important, but often not talked about issue for consumers.