Is Grilled Meat a Cancer Risk?

How to Reduce the Cancer Risk Posed by Grilled Meats

Meat grilling on barbeque
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Does eating grilled meat raise your risk of cancer? Is there anything you can do to reduce that risk (without giving up grilled meat?)

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?

Keep reading to learn not just why grilled meat may be a problem, but what you can do to reduce the amount of carcinogens in the meat you grill—so you can enjoy those summer barbecues without feeling guilty.

Does Grilling or Barbecuing Meat Cause Cancer?

Studies have found that eating grilled meat or chicken may increase your risk of developing cancer.

Part of the problem is the grilling, but the other is simply the heat. Pan frying meats at high temperatures (over 300 F) also appears to increase cancer risk.

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). Heterocyclic amines are considered a human carcinogen.

Heterocyclic amines 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. If you believe that a risk of cancer would mean that grilling would be banned, keep in mind that cigarettes are legal.

Is there a Safe Way to Grill? - Reducing Carcinogens in Grilled Meat

Before cancelling your barbecue and wallowing in sadness for a past-time lost, there are several thing you can do to reduce the carcinogens in barbecued meats - often substantially. Some of these include:

  • Marinate meat - Marinating meats for 20 minutes prior to grilling may reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines by up to 90 percent.
  • Cook at lower temperatures - Experts recommend that foods be cooked at lower temperatures, even though this means cooking them for a longer period of time.
  • Use a gas grill if possible. If you prefer using a charcoal grill, purchase a fire chimney (or make your own out of an old coffee can) so that you can avoid using lighter fluid.
  • Make sure the flames die down before putting meat on the grill.
  • On a gas grill, raising the grill rack, away from the heat, may be helpful. You can also use indirect cooking techniques for meats on the grill, keeping the flames away from the food and using the grill as an oven.

Do Grilled Vegetables Form Carcinogens?

The answer is no. What we've learned about grilled meat doesn't pertain to grilled vegetables.

So add all of the potatoes, red, yellow, orange, and green peppers, zuchini, onions, mushrooms, and any other vegetables you enjoy to the grill. You may use a grill basket, or whatever method you enjoy. In fact, many people who don't particularly enjoy vegetables alone, savor the taste of marinated and lightly seasoned grilled vegetables.

Many people forget that the spices we add to our foods can pack a healthy anti-cancer punch. Better yet, grow some fresh basil, thyme, rosemary, and sage in a container on your deck next to your grill. Chop some of these spices to add to your grilled foods.

Limit Your Total Meat Intake

According to the International Agency on Research of Cancer, it appears to be wise to limit your intake of red meats, whether grilled or cooked in any fashion. You may see recommendations talking about how many ounces you should eat, but unless you weigh all of the food you eat, this isn't really practical. Instead, there are a few simple rules to follow.

  • Limit the meat on your plate to the size of a deck of cards
  • Divide your plate into thirds. Meat products should take up one-third of your plate or less. Fill the other two thirds with cancer fighting foods such as cruciferous vegetables and green leafy vegetables. Ideal choices include: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radishes, and cabbage.

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. 

Limit Processed Meats

As for the hot dogs..

We know that, of all meats, processed meats likely confer the most cancer risk.

Since you will already be limiting both the frequency and portion size of the meats you eat, might it not be best to save those portions for cuts of non-processed meats you can truly savor, such as a good (but marinated) steak?

Bottom Line and Grilling Meats and Cancer Risks

We know that high cooking temperatures and smoke put mutagenic chemicals into and onto meat. Yet, there are several measures you can take to reduce the number of heterocyclic amines and other carcinogens.

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