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Summer Grilling Safety: Tips to Reduce Cancer Risk

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES June 5, 2019Pearls of Wisdom Blog

The weather is getting warm, and the skies are blue and sunny. It’s that time of year again when your outdoor grill and barbecue are begging to be used. However, grilling and cooking meat over an open flame may affect your risk for cancer.

How does grilling affect cancer risk?

When meat is cooked at high temperatures, such as grilling or cooking over an open flame, chemical compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form. These compounds have been found to cause changes to DNA which may increase the risk of cancer.

  • HCAs are formed when substances in meat react to high temperatures.
  • PAHs are formed when fat or juices from meat drip onto a hot surface, causing flames or smoke. The smoke contains PAHs which then adhere to the meat. PAHs can also be found in smoked meats.

Learn more from the National Cancer Institute.

Grilling Safety Tips To Reduce Cancer Risk

When grilling this summer, keep in mind these six “FLAVOR” tips to reduce cancer risk:

  • Flame Down. Keep the flame on your heat source at a lower level to keep from charring the meat. Preheat the coals in your grill for twenty or more minutes until the coals are hot and ash-covered. Flip the meat often to limit exposure and prevent over cooking. The longer and hotter the meat is cooked, the greater the potential for formation of HCAs and PAHs. Use a food thermometer to cook your meat to a safe internal temperature without charring.
  • Leave Grilling for Special Occasions. Save grilling meats for special occasions such as holidays, birthdays and family reunions. When you do eat grilled meats, choose smaller portions.
  • Add a Marinade. In addition to adding flavor and keeping meats tender, marinades can also reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds when grilling. (Remember to throw away leftover marinade that has been in contact with raw meat to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.)
  • Vegetable Up. Choose vegetables instead of meats for the grill. Vegetables do not form significant amounts of HCAs or PAHs when grilled. Vegetables also contain dietary fiber and different vitamins and phytonutrients than meats. You can also try grilling fruits, too.
  • Omit processed meats. Processed meats include products such as hot dogs, bratwurst, and bacon. Even without grilling, meats that are processed with smoke, sodium or other preservatives like nitrates/nitrites are associated with an increased cancer risk.
  • Reduce Cooking Time on the Grill. Cut meat into smaller pieces or precook meats on the indoor stove or in the oven or microwave. You can then finish cooking the meat on the grill for the grilled flavor. You can also choose to grill fish or seafood which has a faster cooking time. The less time spent on the grill, the lower the exposure to HCAs and PAHs.

Be creative when grilling this summer season to reduce your risk for cancer. Grill vegetables more often and grill smaller amounts of both red and processed meat. You can still enjoy the flavor and experience by making these small changes to how you grill.


Grilled Veggies

Grilled Eggplant Pesto Pizza

Chickpea Sliders with Barbecue Sauce


Grilling Essential: Food Thermometers

Safe Grilling Guide

Food Safety at the Grill—Infographic

Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Thank you for talking about marinades and how they’re a great way to reduce cancer-causing compounds when grilling. While I do love a summer barbecue as much as the next guy, I want to make sure my family observes healthy and safe eating when we do it this year. I’ll take your word for it and shop for BBQ sauces and rubs that I can use for marinades during the cookout.

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