How to Reduce Your Cancer Risk From Grilling Meat

Here's how to reduce your risks when grilling

Grilled steak
Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy United

Ah, summer. The sounds of birdsong (or the neighbor’s lawnmower). The sight of bare skin. The taste of lemonade or a cold beer. And the smell of the grill as you fire it up and slap a juicy steak on there.

Not so fast. Unless you’ve been living in your garage for the past five or six years, you’ve probably heard that cooking foods—and especially grilling them—can contribute to cancer.

Do you want to spend your holidays making you and your family sick?

 Not likely.

But don’t be too quick to sell off that grill. Armed with these tips and some common sense, you’ll be able protect yourself and your family—while still enjoying the taste of barbequed foods. Let’s take a closer look.

Cooking and Cancer

Cooking is really chemistry. And heating foods can cause reactions that in turn affect our bodies—even at the level of our DNA. Yup. It’s scary stuff.  

But in the meantime, here’s the lowdown.

Heating foods—especially meats—at higher temperatures poses the biggest risk. And pickled, smoked, barbecued, or processed meats (e.g., bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, salami, bologna, luncheon meats, corned beef) seem most problematic of all.

Is Cooking All Bad?

No. In fact, cooking has some major health benefits. It can make food safer and reduce spoilage. It can soften tough (but nutritious) foods, making it easier for us to enjoy them. It allows us to get more energy from food.

And it concentrates flavors, making food taste great.

How to Manage the Risks

The truth is, it’s impossible to eliminate all carcinogens in food. And we flat out need to cook a lot of the foods we eat. So your goal here is not to get rid of the risk but to manage it.

Here are some suggestions.

In general, you can:  

  • Eat more plant foods. Why? Because plant-based eating helps balance the negative effects of some carcinogenic compounds.

  • Consider boiling, steaming, braising, and stewing. These cooking methods do not create the same carcinogens as grilling, frying, broiling, or roasting.

  • Eat fewer processed foods, especially processed meats.

And, when you do grill or broil:

  • Clean your grill.

  • Use leaner meats.

  • Marinate your meat in lemon juice, vinegars, wines, and olive oil; these can markedly reduce dangerous compounds created when grilling.

  • Add some herbs, like basil, mint, rosemary, and thyme; these can also markedly reduce dangerous compounds created when grilling.

  • Don’t show off for your grilling buddies with flare-ups.

  • Don’t overcook.

  • Use skewers, alternating meat chunks with veggies or fruit.

How often is it safe to barbeque? Sadly, there’s no easy or absolute answer to that question. It all depends on your overall diet and fitness.

So why not start with just one of our guidelines this week? Remember, perfection isn’t the goal.

Improvement is.


Cross AJ, et al. A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: an investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association. Cancer Res 2010;70:2406-2414.

Davis B & Melina B. Becoming Raw. 2010. Book Publishing Company.

Ferguson LR. Meat and cancer. Meat Science 2010;84:308-313.

Goldberg T. Advanced glycoxidation end products in commonly consumed foods. J Am Diet Assoc 2004;104:1287-1291.

Parzefall W. Minireview on the toxicity of dietary acrylamide. Food and Chemical Toxicology 2008;46:1360-1364.

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