Goodtime Grillin'

Summer is finally here, and nothing says so quite like a backyard barbeque. Perhaps cooking directly over fire kindles a lost connection with our ancestors; maybe it is the fact that barbeques generally bring friends and family around; or is it the ability to cook a full meal without heating up the house and with minimal dishes to be washed? Whatever the reason, Americans love to grill.

While grilling offers great taste and convenience, it comes with a few dangers. We’ve all heard the horror stories: the innocent family cookout gone bad when a grill is not properly maintained, or the time Uncle Herbert singed off his eyebrows in a blaze of fire. But while scenarios like these are not to be taken lightly, the dangers I speak of are of a more subtle type. Whenever we cook food, especially meat, we change the structure of that food and sometimes in doing so create toxins that are potentially harmful.

While all cooking of meat poses some risk, the greatest threats come from grilling, broiling and frying. These methods use higher temperatures and tend to expose foods more directly to heat. High temps and direct heat promote the formation of at least three groups of compounds that have been implicated in many modern degenerative diseases, including cancer. The cancer-causing effects of these compounds on animals have been well documented in laboratory tests, though the health effects on humans have not been as clearly established.[i] Still, it makes sense to minimize the creation of these potential toxins, and practicing better grilling techniques can help you do just that.

The first group of compounds, advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, form as a result of a cross-linking reaction between proteins and sugars. Once ingested, these compounds act as pro-oxidants in our body, causing oxidative stress and inflammation, which can in turn lead to aging and degenerative diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.[ii] Almost all dietary AGEs result from meats cooked at high temperatures, especially if a charred crust has formed.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are another category of toxins created when grilling meat; they belong to a family of mutagenic, cancer-causing compounds that the federal government officially added to the list of known carcinogens in January of 2005.[iii] HCAs are formed when creatinine and amino acids are exposed to high temperatures and combust. Grilling in particular tends to create an abundance of HCAs because meat is exposed to very high temperatures for an extended period of time. In fact, nutritionists at The Cancer Project found that all meats contain some amount of HCAs after being grilled, including skinless chicken breast, well-done steak, salmon and barbequed pork.[iv] Generally, the longer a meat is grilled over direct heat and the higher the temperature exposure, the higher the amount of HCAs found in that meat.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when the fat from a piece of meat on the grill drops into the flame. When the fat hits the fire, PAHs are created and the newly formed carcinogenic residue deposits on the surface of the meat. In animal studies PAHs have been shown to increase tumors in the upper gastrointestinal tract.[v] PAHs are also formed by the burning of charcoal and escape into the air in smoke.[vi]

With all the potential hazards from grilling, one might be tempted to move the party back inside. But don’t pack the grill up yet! By following a few simple, safe grilling techniques, you can minimize your exposure to these possible toxins:

  • The most important thing to remember is to avoid cooking meats directly over very high heat. Any charred pieces should always be trimmed away from the meat before eating. While this may alter the taste you are accustomed to slightly, the long term health benefits are well worth it.
  • Choose leaner varieties of meats and trim away any visible fat before grilling.
  • Avoid marinades heavy in oil. Instead, choose marinades with vinegar or citrus juices, such as lemon or lime juice, which add antioxidant benefits and help mitigate the formation of AGEs.
  • When applying a marinade or sauce during cooking, use a light touch to avoid dripping oil into the flames.
  • Always clean your grill before each use to remove any leftover charred foods that may still be on the grate. If you need to oil a grill before starting, use a soft cloth or paper towel held by tongs to grease the grates.
  • Be an active participant when grilling. Instead of throwing a piece of meat on the grate, closing the lid and walking away, stay nearby and be sure to move food away from any flare-ups that may occur.

In addition, you can learn to use the grill to cook food in new ways. For example, meat can be roasted on a grill by closing the lid: one side is directly heated while the other is slow cooked. Cast iron cookware can also be placed directly on the grill and used in the same way you would a burner on the stove. You can also opt for foods such as pizzas, quesadillas, fruits and veggies that are less likely than meat to create any of the above-mentioned toxins. Using natural wrappers such as grape leaves or corn husks can also protect meat from being overexposed to direct heat. In addition, there is much evidence to suggest that foods high in antioxidants can significantly curtail the harmful effects of toxins associated with grilling. So make sure to always include a heaping helping of brightly colored vegetables and antioxidant-rich drinks, such as iced green tea or red wine, with your grilled foods. You can also use antioxidant-rich marinades and sauces like the ones that follow.


[1] Analysis of 200 food items for benzo[a]pyrene and estimation of its intake in an epidemiologic study.Kazerouni N, Sinha R, Hsu CH, Greenberg A, Rothman N.Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Rockville, MD 20892, USA.

[2] Circulating Glycotoxins and Dietary Advanced Glycation Endproducts: Two Links to Inflammatory Response, Oxidative Stress, and Aging. Jaime Uribarri, Weijing Cai, Melpomeni Peppa, Susan Goodman, Luigi Ferrucci, Gary Striker and Helen Vlassara

[3] 11th Report on Carcinogens U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPublic Health ServiceNational Toxicology ProgramPursuant to Section 301(b) (4) of the Public Health Service Act as Amended by Section 262, PL 95-622


[5] Analysis of 200 food items for benzo[a]pyrene and estimation of its intake in an epidemiologic study. _ Kazerouni N, Sinha R, Hsu CH, Greenberg A, Rothman N.Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Rockville, MD 20892, USA.

[6]Wisconsin Depart5ment of Health and Family Services