Does Grilled Meat Cause Cancer?

Scientists warn that grilling causes carcinogens to form in meat. Here are 5 easy steps to minimize the health risks.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #147

Have you heard the latest? Turns out, those backyard barbecues we’ve been enjoying so much all summer could be contributing to increased cancer risk. (Doesn’t it sometimes seem as if scientists are just out to ruin all our fun?)

Unfortunately, it’s true: Cooking meat over hot coals or open flames can create compounds that cause cancer in animals.  And, sure enough, studies in humans show a suspicious link between cancer and consumption of meat—grilled meat, in particular. 

To be sure, the evidence is purely circumstantial and we can’t say for sure that eating grilled meat increases the risk of cancer.  Nonetheless, it’s enough to make those festive family cookouts feel just a little less carefree.

How Do Grilled Meats Cause Cancer?

There are two kinds of compounds in grilled meats that cause concern. The first are heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. These are formed when animal proteins come into contact with very hot surfaces—and the temperatures in your grill are likely to be much higher than those in your oven or on your stove-top.

The second problem is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These are produced when animal fats drip down onto hot coals or flames and ignite. The resulting smoke deposits harmful substances on the surface of the meat.

These compounds aren’t only a concern with red meat, by the way. They also occur in grilled pork, chicken, and fish. Vegetarians, you get off scot-free: grilling vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, and veggie burgers does not produce PAHs or HCAs. 

Related: Should You be a Vegetarian?

Fortunately, there’s no need to lay down your beloved barbecue tongs just yet. Here are 5 easy steps you can take to minimize the formation of carcinogenic compounds when grilling.

Bonus: These tips also make your grilled meats more tender and flavorful.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.