How to Reduce the Health Hazards of Grilling Your Food

What You Didn't Know About Grilling

Man grilling meat
Carey Shaw/Stocksy United

While foodies may rave about the grill marks on the burgers or chicken you cook outdoors, you should know that those prized stripes are actually carcinogens that form when meat is cooked over high heat.

The fire, smoke, and effects of grilling cause a chemical reaction and the compounds that form are hazardous to your health. If you love the taste of grilled food, you should recognize that it is not a healthy method of cooking.

Carcinogens form when:

  • Meat is cooked at high temperatures
  • Meat juices drip and the flames hit the meat
  • Meat is cooked over a long period of time

Compounds that are carcinogens form when meat is cooked at a temperature of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit or above. It is a chemical reaction that occurs in all meats, and their formation is dependent on time and temperature, which is why well-done meats are the riskiest to ingest. One study found that well-done meat had 3.5 times the heterocyclic amines (HCA) of medium rare meat. 

2 Types of Carcinogenic Compounds

Two of the types of carcinogenic compounds that form are heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Well-done meats and HCAs are associated with an increased risk of cancers of the breast, prostate, and pancreas. Carcinogens damage our DNA, which can lead to changes in cell division and eventually cancer, which is characterized by abnormal cell proliferation.

Most people wrongly assume that only red meat cooked at high temperatures has the potential to be harmful, but the chief dietary sources of HCAs also include broiled fish and grilled chicken.

The simplest way to avoid these carcinogens in cooking is to limit meat in your diet since that is your biggest source of exposure.

In addition to HCAs and PAHs formed during cooking, meat contains several elements that cause harm to your health when consumed excessively, including animal protein, arachidonic acid and heme iron.

Minimizing Health Threats

To minimize these threats to your health, limit the number and size of your portions of meat. Use only small amounts of meat, for example, mixed in a bean burger with some mushrooms and onions. The phytate in the beans reduces the meat’s toxicity, by binding up some of the heme iron and reducing HCA production.  

Adding anti-cancer foods, like onions, garlic and cruciferous vegetables may help to detoxify some of the carcinogens your body absorbed. Also, marinating meats with liquid and antioxidant-rich herbs, like rosemary and oregano, has been shown to reduce the production of HCAs during cooking.

Safer, healthier choices are available. Marinated vegetables, corn on the cob, portabello mushrooms, and bean and mushroom burgers all taste great when grilled. Just avoid eating the blackened parts of those items, too.

In plant foods, especially starchy foods, acrylamide, a potential human carcinogen, is formed during high-heat dry cooking.

For occasional meat-eaters, here are some strategies to employ next time you grill to reduce HCAs and PAHs:

  1. Cook item without direct contact with flame (Tip: Wrap meat in foil to cook).
  2. Pre-cook in microwave to reduce grill time.
  3. Marinate with liquid or polyphenol-rich herbs and spices (Some examples: cloves, thyme, rosemary, Mexican oregano, celery seed, turmeric, ginger, sweet basil).
  4. Flip item frequently.
  5. Avoid charring or remove charred portions from item.
  6. Don’t eat gravy made from meat drippings.
  7. Eat anti-cancer foods, along with meat and/or eat more beans in the meal when meat is eaten.


National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. In []

Viegas O, Amaro LF, Ferreira IM, Pinho O. Inhibitory effect of antioxidant-rich marinades on the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in pan-fried beef. J Agric Food Chem. 2012, 60:6235-6240.

Zhang Y, Yu C, Mei J, Wang S. Formation and mitigation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in fried pork. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 2013, 30:1501-1507.

Zheng W, Lee S-A. Well-Done Meat Intake, Heterocyclic Amine Exposure, and Cancer Risk. Nutr Cancer. 2009, 61:437-446.

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