Grilling and Cancer: Turn Down the Summer Heat


What you grill—and how you grill—can potentially produce cancer-causing substances. Here are 3 tips nurses can share with others to reduce the risk of carcinogen formation and still enjoy grilled food.

Grilling is one of those indisputable signs of summer and conjures up images of family get-togethers and celebrations, lazy evenings when the sun doesn’t set until it is almost time for bed or simply not wanting to heat up the kitchen!

Unfortunately, what you grill—and how you grill—can potentially produce cancer-causing substances. Whenever I speak to a group about nutrition and cancer prevention, participants are always surprised when I mention that grilling may have some negative effects.

Chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when muscle meat is cooked at a high temperature or over an open flame. In laboratory studies, these chemicals cause changes in DNA that may increase cancer risk.1 HCAs are formed when meats are cooked at high temperatures (above 300○F) or cooked for a long time.

PAHs form when the fat and juices from meat drip onto the surface of the grill, causing flames and smoke. The smoke contains PAHs that stick to the surface of the meat.1 PAHs are also found in tobacco smoke.2 The formation of these substances occurs with any type of meat, poultry and even fish cooked at high temperatures, especially if it is charred or the fat drips onto coals.

Here are 3 tips nurses can share with others to reduce the risk of carcinogen formation and still enjoy grilled food:

  • Turn down the heat. If possible, grill over indirect heat. Most of the links between cancer and grilling are associated with meat that is charred or cooked to a high temperature. Choose lean meats and trim the fat before grilling. Be sure to remove any charred meat before eating. Another way to avoid flames resulting in charred meat is to place meat on a sheet of foil (poke holes in the foil to let the fat drip). This will protect food from smoke and cut back on flame flare-ups. You can also recommend precooking meat in the microwave or oven before grilling to minimize HCA formation.
  • Marinate meat for 20-30 minutes before cooking. A marinade acts as a barrier between meat and carcinogen formation by keeping the surface of the meat from getting so hot. Including herbs and spices in the marinade also supplies powerful antioxidants that help decrease the HCAs formed during grilling. Try basil, mint, or rosemary along with flavored vinegar or citrus juice to provide loads of flavor and disease-fighting polyphenols.3
  • Grill vegetables (and even fruit!) instead of meat. Grilling plant-based foods does not produce HCAs and PAHs. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting the consumption of red and processed meat while having a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans. Grilling vegetables and fruit will bring out their natural sweetness and many are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals which may help protect against cancer. Try grilling vegetables such as asparagus, zucchini, and eggplant. Stone fruits such as peaches and nectarines are also delicious grilled.


  • American Institute for Cancer Research. Guide to safe summer grilling. American Institute for Cancer Research website. Accessed July 22, 2018.
  • Vu AT, Taylor KM, Holman MR, et al. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the mainstream smoke of popular US cigarettes. Chem Res Toxicol. 2015; 28(8): 1616-1626. doi: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.5b00190.
  • Smith JA, Ameri F, Gadgil P. Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocycle amines in grilled beef steaks. J Food Sci. 73(6):T100-5, 2008.

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