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.

5 Ways to Make Grilling Healthier

Vegetarians, you get off scot-free: Grilling vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, or veggie burgers does not produce PAHs or HCAs.

1. Keep Grill Temperatures Moderate --  If you’re using a gas grill, you probably don’t need to have all burners going full blast, especially if you’re not using the entire grill surface.  Turning down the burners will reduce the formation of HCAs and also help keep your meat from drying out before it’s cooked through.

If you’re using charcoal, you want to light just enough charcoal to give you a single layer of coals underneath your cooking surface.  Even if it’s going to be a long afternoon at the grill, there’s still no need to build a towering inferno of charcoal.  Start with a moderate-sized fire and add a handful of fresh coals every 30 minutes or so to keep the fire going indefinitely at a nice steady, moderate heat.

2. Use Indirect Cooking Methods -- Arrange your charcoal on one side of the grill (or around the edges) and cook your meat on the other side (or in the middle). Because the drippings don’t fall on the hot coals, this technique vastly reduces flare-ups, which helps avoid the formation of PAHs. Your meat will also cook more evenly, without getting overly charred.  You can adjust the burners on a gas grill to create the same effect—but when you’re using indirect heat, you need to cook with the lid of the grill closed.

3. Use Leaner Cuts of Meat --  Leaner cuts of meat, such as pork tenderloin, flank steak, skinless chicken, and burgers made with lean ground beef or turkey will also reduce the amount of dripping fat and decrease the risk of flare-ups.

Related Content: Chicken vs. Beef

4. Pre-cook Meat before Grilling -- Pre-cooking reduces the amount of time that meat spends on the grill, which cuts down on the opportunity for HCA formation. As a bonus, it’ll speed up cooking times and keep meat and chicken juicier.  The easiest way to pre-cook is in the microwave.  Zap hamburger patties for 2 minutes per pound; chicken parts for 4 to 5 minutes per pound.  Then finish them on the grill with your favorite sauce or secret seasonings for that great barbecue flavor.

One caveat: Partially-cooking meat and then holding it for an extended period of time creates a perfect scenario for bacteria to multiply.  I like to pre-cook meat immediately before putting it on the grill.  If you’re grilling at a park or other location far from your microwave, this won’t be practical. However, my final tip is perfect for this scenario:

5. Use Marinades and Spice Rubs  -- This is the most delicious way to avoid the formation of harmful compounds. Marinating meats for as little as 30 minutes can reduce the formation of HCAs by up to 90%.  You can use a pre-made marinade, a mix, or make your own from scratch.  Marinades are also a terrific way to tenderize those leaner cuts of meat I suggested in tip #2.

For burgers (which are hard to marinate), knead some herbs and spices into the meat.  The antioxidants they contain help block the formation of harmful chemicals—plus give your burgers a flavorful kick.  Use fresh or dried oregano, rosemary, parsley, thyme, chili, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, garlic—or try the delicious spice mixture from the recipe for Moroccan Sliders on page 218 of my book, Nutrition Diva’s Secrets for a Healthy Diet.

Related Content: Benefits of Herbs

Don’t Forget the Vegetables!

Finally, be sure your plate also contains plenty of vegetables—whether cooked, raw, or any other way you enjoy them. The nutrients in fresh fruits and vegetables help to neutralize harmful compounds in your digestive tract and have a protective effect against cancer.

Related Content: Benefits of Raw Foods

Keep in Touch

If you have a favorite spice mix or marinade recipe, be sure to share it below in Comments or post it on my Nutrition Diva Facebook page. (I’d also love to see photos of your family cookouts and celebrations!) I’ll collect some of the more unusual ones and share them in my weekly newsletter

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!


Fact sheet from National Cancer Institute

Flame Grilled Steak image courtesy of Shutterstock

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.