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Is Grilling Your Meat Unsafe???

The smell of the grill alone…. anyone else drooling already? Let’s get right to the truth of the matter…It doesn’t matter what you put on there. Burgers? Steak? Sausage? Seafood? Veggies? Watermelon? Grilling makes food taste ah-may-zing. Yep! Even watermelon!

But the grill doesn’t just make your food taste awesome, it offers some decent health benefits to boot.

For example, you use minimal oil for grilling in comparison to say, sautéing in a pan. The fat also drips off while cooking. Plus- if you’re grilling, it probably means you’re cooking for yourself, WITH minimal clean up. Win win.

But does grilling cause cancer?

Grilling meat does have the ability to produce chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer. Sounds scary but don’t give up on your grill just yet.


HCAs (Heterocyclic amines) form when meat is over cooked or charbroiled. (Maybe my dad was right with his medium rare to rare steak?) The creatine, amino acid, and sugars in meat react together with heat.

HCAs can change and damage your DNA, for this reason the Department of Health and Human Services puts HCAs in the “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen category.” Animal research has also shown that HCAs in VERY LARGE DOSES can contribute to cancer development.

There are four factors that influence the formation of HCA…type of food, how the food is cooked, the temperature at which it is cooked, and how long it is cooked. Temperature being the most important of these four. While HCAs begin to form around 212 F, the really nasty ones form at about 572 F. Most people grill their food in the 375-500 range.

PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) form when meat is charred or blackened, or when fat from the meat dips onto the hot surface and begins to smoke…which is where PAHs are formed, in the smoke.

PAHs include over 100 different compounds formed by the incomplete burning of organic matter (e.g., oil, gas, coal, food, etc.) at temperatures in excess of 392 degrees F (200 C).

The Environmental Protection Agency has classified seven PAHs as probable human carcinogens.

PAH creation is influenced by the temperature at which you cook your food, how long you cook your food, the type of fuel used to heat the grill, how far the food is from the heat source, and the fat content in the food.

Basically, the longer a meat is cooked and the hotter the temperature meat is cooked at…the more HCAs and PAHs.

So, with all that scary jargon about HCAs and PAHs, how can you make grilling healthier and safer for your family?

Using herbs and spices not only makes food taste good, but it also can help lower the HCA and PAH content. For example, Rosemary can lower HCA formation by up to 90%- that’s huge! Rosemary isn’t the only herb from the mint family that is helpful. Basil, thyme, oregano, and sage are also great at helping decrease HCA. Turmeric, onion powder, and fresh garlic have all also been shown to decrease HCA formation.

Acid based marinades can dramatically reduce HCA as well. In other words, marinades with vinegar, lemon, lime, wine, etc. Dark beer marinades are also great.

HCAs and PAHs depend on temperature plus time…So overcooking is a no no. Blackened and charred meat have the highest levels of HCAs and PAHs.

Go for quality meats. Processed meats like hotdogs, bacon, sausage, and ham have higher levels of nitrates and are thought to be more problematic. Most of the time, use whole, less-processed cuts of meat such as steaks, chicken thighs, ribs, etc. Fresh fish and seafood grill up nicely as well.

If you like burgers, make your own instead of buying pre-packaged. If you like sausage, reach for fresh, traditionally made versions. Go with leaner cuts of meat, as fattier cuts will drip more and cause more PAH formation.

Don’t forget your fruits and veggies!

Adding fruits and veggies in is an awesome way to fight HCA and PAH damage. Kabobs are a great, easy way to grill your veggies and meat together. Foil packets work well also. Let’s not forget, veggies are also great for removing/ detoxing potential toxins from the body.

At the end of the day, just keep grilling risks in perspective. There are more benefits then risk for sure. Overall, HCAs and PAHs make a very minor contribution to cancer risk. Being in-active, having a high body fat percentage, and eating processed foods is much riskier than throwing that chicken on the grill.

Just to recap the benefits….

Grilling usually means cooking at home…which leads to money saved, and usually calories saved as well because it’s less processed, another benefit. You can pick your own quality, lean cuts of meat. You can make your own healthy marinades, rather than sugary sauces…more calories cut! Don’t forget low and slow is better but don’t overcook.

Now get out there, fire up your grill and enjoy your summer!

Are you looking for more help with your nutrition practices?

I would love to help!

Shoot me an email at Amber@FirstCapitalGym.com