Is Grilled Meat a Cancer Risk?

Will Smoky Charred Meat Raise Your Risks?

Meat grilling on barbeque
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Grilled meat is a big part of summer in the United States. Cookouts and family barbecues serve up hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and chicken as the perfect weekend summer meal. For years, there has been controversy over whether grilled red meat and chicken could cause cancer. This subject has been circulated online as being true and false, and there have even been conflicting reports in the news. What do we believe?

Does Grilling or Barbecuing Meat Cause Cancer?

According to Dr. Ted Gansler, director of Medical Content for the American Cancer Society, eating excessive amounts of grilled meat or chicken can increase your risk of developing cancer. This is also true for pan-fried meats at high temperatures (over 300F).

Current research tells us that the well-done or charred meats pose the highest risk. The problem is that cooking at very high temperatures breaks down the amino acid creatine in meats into heterocyclic amines (HAs). These are found on any meat cooked at high temperature, whether on a grill or in a pan or under the broiler.

Meanwhile, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when the meat juices drip onto the coals or other heating surfaces and flare up in flames and smoke. They stick to meat and are only found on grilled or smoked meat. HAs and PAHs are mutagenic - they cause changes in the DNA of cells in the laboratory that could lead to cells becoming cancerous.

But nobody is officially calling for an end to grilling. There aren't any federal guidelines telling you what levels of HCAs and PAHs will harm you.

Is there a Safe Way to Grill?

Keep in mind, that grilling occasionally appears to be okay. Excessive consumption of grilled foods cooked at a high temperature (over 300F) is the risk factor for developing cancer.

Experts recommend that foods be cooked at lower temperatures, even if it means cooking longer. The goal is to prevent charring the meat. You can do this on a charcoal grill by allowing the flames to go down after lighting. On a gas grill, try raising the grill rack, away from the heat. You can also use indirect cooking techniques for meats on the grill, keeping flames away from the food and using the grill as an oven.

Using skewers is also an excellent way to limit the amount of grilled meat consumed during a meal. Small pieces of meat, combined with fresh fruits and vegetables on the grill make for an attractive and delicious meal. 

Bottom Line and Grilling Meats and Cancer Risks

We know that high cooking temperatures and smoke put mutagenic chemicals into and onto meat. But we don't yet have the evidence that this is a significant cause of cancer in humans. Studies are ongoing to see whether eating grilled meat raises the cancer incidence in populations over time.

Keep in mind that just like everything in life, moderation is key.

There is only an increased risk of cancer when excessive amounts cooked at high temperatures are consumed. You still can enjoy grilled meats, but just do so in moderation and when cooked at low temperatures.


Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute. Reviewed: October 19, 2015. Accessed 12/8/2015.

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