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Grilling With An Eye Toward Good Health

From Shelby Moose, Crossing Rivers Health Registered Dietitian


Although grilling in the great outdoors is a summer ritual for many, it's disappointing to hear that grilling can actually be bad for you.

But before you toss your tongs in the trash, read on. With some tweaking to your technique, you can continue to enjoy grilled foods while reducing the risks to your health.

Concerns about cancer

Research has linked eating grilled meats—including poultry and fish—to an increased risk for cancer.

Cooking meat on a grill can produce two different cancer-causing compounds:

  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs form in meats that are cooked at especially high temperatures and in meats cooked long enough to char. HCAs can be formed in broiled and pan-fried meat as well as in grilled meat, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Studies done in animals suggest that HCAs may increase the risk for cancers of the breast, colon, stomach and prostate, according to the National Cancer Institute.
  • Research done in humans has shown a link between HCAs from grilled foods and an increased risk for pancreatic cancer, according to the ACS. In fact, one study found that regularly eating charred, well-done meat may increase a person's risk for pancreatic cancer by up to 60percent.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds are created when the fat and juices from meat drip onto an open fire or onto hot coals, causing flames. PAHs form in the resulting smoke, which then envelops whatever food is being cooked on the grill and deposits PAHs onto it.
  • According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, PAHs have shown the ability to damage DNA in ways that make cancer more likely.

Lowering your risk

Fortunately, your risk of cancer varies with what you cook—and how you cook it. Grilling fruits and vegetables, for example, can help you avoid PAHs and HCAs. Many of these chemicals are not formed when vegetables or fruits are grilled.

In addition, filling up on produce may mean that you eat less meat. Still, you don't have to take grilled meats entirely off the menu. Instead, try lowering your exposure to PAHs and HCAs with the following tips:

  • Marinate your meats. Marinating your meat can lower the amount of HCAs produced. The moisture helps the meat cook more slowly and reduces charring. Using a mixture of vinegar or lemon juice along with herbs and spices seems to be the key. You should leave the meat in the marinade for at least 30minutes. Scientists are still investigating precisely how these marinades help lower HCAs, but it's possible that compounds in the marinade ingredients are responsible.
  • Choose more fish and poultry, and less red and processed meats. No matter how you cook it, eating a lot of red and processed meats can increase your risk for colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
  • Avoid charring. Grill at lower temperatures by turning the gas down or cooking your meat in the center of the grill after you move coals off to the side. Remove charred or burnt sections from meat before eating. Those bites have the highest concentration of HCAs.
  • Reduce grill time. Grill meat in smaller portions that cook more quickly, such as skewered on kebabs. Flipping meat frequently also speeds up cooking and helps prevent HCAs from forming. You can also cook meats first in the oven or microwave, and then finish on the grill for just a few minutes.
  • Eliminate drips. Use tongs or a spatula instead of piercing meat with a fork. Or try covering the grill surface with punctured aluminum foil so that fat can drip off but less smoke comes back onto the meat. You can also help eliminate drips by choosing lean cuts of meat and trimming extra fat before cooking.

Other grilling pitfalls

When you take food preparation out of the convenient confines of the kitchen, it's easy to let food safety slide. Follow these tips to avoid other food safety pitfalls common to grilling:

  • Wash your hands!
  • Never reuse marinade that's been in contact with raw meat—not even if you boil it.
  • Don't baste with marinade that has touched raw meat. Set aside a small amount before marinating to use just for basting.
  • Marinate all meats in the refrigerator, never on the counter or near the grill.
  • Grill meat you have precooked immediately to avoid bacteria that can cause illness.
  • Always use separate cutting boards, dishes and utensils for raw meat.
  • Go ahead and cook vegetables on the same grill surface as the meat—but only if the meat was thoroughly cooked.
  • Judge meat's doneness using a food thermometer. This is the only way to make sure it's fully cooked.
  • Don't leave any perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours—1 hour if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees or higher.
  • Scrub your grill with hot, soapy water before each use, and follow all the safety precautions and rules of operation in the owner's manual. Improper use of a grill could cause a fire or explosion.

As a registered dietitian, I encourage you to take control and to care for your health. By making informed food choices, preparing healthy and delicious meals and snacks, you can feel better and be motivated in other areas of your life.


Shelby Moose is the Registered Dietitian at Crossing Rivers Health.

Please feel free to contact Dietitian Services to:

  • Learn about an upcoming community nutrition education event
  • Schedule an appointment
  • Obtain recipes/handouts
  • Ask a question