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Here's How To Avoid Potential Carcinogens When You're Grilling

Will Clower, PhD
May 21, 2014
Will Clower, PhD
By Will Clower, PhD
Will Clower, PhD, is an award-winning author, neurophysiologist, neuroscientist, and nutritionist.
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May 21, 2014

When summer arrives, it means beautiful warm weather, longer days, and time to fire up the grill. But if you've heard murmurs that grilled meat may cause cancer, you may be a bit wary to take a bite of that steak or burger.

Your hesitation is totally valid: There were a number of studies published in recent years that found evidence eating charred, well-done meat could be bad for your health. A 2010 research review1 found that most studies revealed high consumption of well-done meat and high exposure to meat carcinogens, specifically heterocyclic amines (HCAs), may increase the risk of human cancer.

HCAs are a kind of chemical that forms when meat is cooked through "high temperature methods" like grilling, according to the National Cancer Institute. This occurs because amino acids, sugar, and creatine or creatinine (found naturally in meat) react at a high temperature. In fact, the total HCA content will depend on how well-done you take your meat, and also what kind you’re eating—the highest concentration is in bacon, fried pork, beef, and chicken.

There's also another important carcinogen to keep in mind when it comes to grilling: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These form when fat drippings from the meat create flames or smoke, reports the National Cancer Institute. So even if you don't char your meat, grilling may increase the risk of PAHs.

It's important to note that while a number of studies found connections between grilling meat and cancer, others didn't find a significant association. And it would likely take regular grilled meat consumption to really make a significant difference for your overall health.

Still, if you're interested in minimizing your exposure to HCAs and PAHs during your outdoor BBQ, there are a number of best practices that I like to implement before, during, and after grilling.

Go for veggies

If you grill vegetables, you can feel free to singe away. These don’t have the combination of creatine and sugar found in meats, nor does it have the fat drippings that smoke up into PAHs. Think grilled pineapple: Drizzle a bit of sesame oil over it beforehand.

Marinate your meat

Not only does a marinade increase the flavor of your meat, it may also decrease the formation fo HCAs, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. This is likely because antioxidants in marinades block HCAs from forming.

I recommend vinegar-based marinades that contain herbs and spices, notably those related from the mint family such as basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, and thyme. Most of these herbs are rich in three compounds—carnosic acid, carnosol and rosmarinic acid—all potent antioxidants.

As a rule, use about one-half cup of marinade for every pound of food, although large pieces may need more to cover the food's surface adequately. The amount of marinating time is up to you, because it only takes a few minutes to get the benefits.

Slowly increase the heat

Don’t set your barbecue on “blow torch.” Start on a medium-high temp, and flip the meat often enough so that you don’t get charring. Another great technique, if you have multiple burners, is to grill up each side real quick, and then turn off the burner that lies directly under the meat while keeping the other burners on. That basically transitions your grill into an oven.

Be an active griller

During the grilling process, there are also a number of ways to limit PAH carcinogens. For starters, you can trim excess fat off your meat before dropping it on the grill, to mitigate unwanted drippings. You can also cover your grill with punctured aluminum foil—this will help prevent drips from hitting the hot coals and creating smoke. Lastly, keep a squirt bottle with water on hand, to help offset those smoke flare-ups.

Trim off the burnt bits

Once you’ve cooked the food, there are just a couple of very common sense things you can do to maximize flavor and minimize carcinogens.

First of all, don’t eat char. Think about it. Char. It’s just burnt meat—cut it off! If you do this one simple thing, you’ll eliminate any HCAs that do happen to get through your marinade net.

Bottom line

While it's definitely not a great idea to eat a charred piece of meat regularly, the occasional grilled burger or steak shouldn't have a major impact on your health. That said, following these best practices will help decrease your exposure even more, without sacrificing flavor.

Will Clower, PhD author page.
Will Clower, PhD

Will Clower, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, neurophysiologist, neuroscientist, nutritionist, and founder of Mediterranean Wellness, LLC., which administer the Path Healthy Eating and Weight-Loss Curriculum adopted by corporate clients across the U.S. The author of The Fat Fallacy and The French Don’t Diet Plan, he is based in Pittsburgh, PA.