How to Make Grilling Safer For Your Health

A few simple changes can reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs.

Updated on June 01, 2023

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Photo by: Maryna Terletska/Getty Images

Maryna Terletska/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be summer if you didn’t get something on the grill! From fish and meat to vegetables and fruit, there’s plenty to get excited about grilling this season.

But if you’re concerned about the possible link of cancer to grilling, below you’ll find an explanation of what the concern is about and simple ways you can help reduce your risk.

Why Is There a Risk of Cancer When Grilling?

There are two possible links to cancer when grilling. The first is heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are formed when amino acids (the building block of proteins), sugars and creatine or creatinine (a compound naturally found in the muscles of meat) react at high cooking temperatures. Now, grilling isn’t the only way to get HCAs; broiling and frying can do it, too. The good news is HCAs aren’t found in significant amounts in foods other than meats cooked at high temperatures.

The other cancer-causing substance is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), which forms when fat from grilled food drips on hot coals or ceramic bricks, and produces smoke. The chemical travels in the smoke, which then infuses it into your foods. The higher the heat, the more PAH is formed. Smoking meats can also form higher PAH levels.

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Photo by: Akchamczuk/Getty Images

Akchamczuk/Getty Images

How to Reduce Your Risk

The number of HCAs and PAHs that will form varies by the type of meat, cooking method and how you cook your meat (rare, medium or well done). Any meat cooked at high temperatures, especially above 300 degrees Fahrenheit (like in grilling or pan-frying), or meats that are cooked for a long time, tend to form more HCAs. PAHs form from cooking methods that expose meat to smoke.

However, there’s no need to give up grilling. Here are some steps you can take to make grilling safer:

Trim fat off meats and poultry to reduce the drippings. Or opt for leaner cuts (here’s our recommended list). Catch drippings in foil or a pan to decrease smoke.

Cook at lower temperatures and make sure the flames do not come into direct contact with your food.

Don’t overcook food. HCAs and PAHs accumulate more in the blackened part of food. Yes, char marks are part of grilling’s beauty, but cut burnt sections off.

Marinate your meats, poultry and fish before grilling. Spices in marinade can reduce the number of HCAs that form during cooking by inhibiting their formation. Even marinating for as little as 10 minutes helps. Before cooking, remove the food from the marinade and drain for a minute to prevent flare ups.

Try certain marinade ingredients. These include vinegar, citrus juice and vegetable oil. Herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage add flavor and are linked to reduced HCA formation.

Turn your food often. According to a published study, burgers cooked at lower temperatures, but turned every minute can produce 75 to 95 percent fewer cancer-causing agents than those turned every five minutes or so.

Cook meat in the microwave first. Doing this, before exposing the meat to higher temperatures, can also substantially reduce HCA formation by bringing down the total amount of time the meat is in contact with high heat. To cook meats in the microwave, be sure to cook them to their minimum internal cooking temperatures and then grill right after.

Bottom Line: If you want to grill meat, but are worried about risks of cancer, follow the seven tips provided above to reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs, and help reduce your overall risk.

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