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Does Grilling Cause Cancer? Plus: How to reduce your cancer risk when grilling meat
by Kathryn Allen, M.A., R.D., C.S.O., L.D./N.

Grilling meat

Grilling gets a bad rap—and a good one! (Truth? It may deserve both.

Q. Does grilling cause cancer?

A. Just when you start to feel virtuous after switching from steaks and fries to grilled chicken and fish, you hear grilling is bad too! Now what?

Before you throw in the tongs and go back to your country-fried steak, it might help to know the science behind the controversy.


Any muscle meat—including chicken, fish and seafood—can produce carcinogenic substances called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) when grilled. The combination of high temperature and muscle protein creates these chemicals, so actually, cooking at a high temperature in a frying pan or the oven can do the same thing.

Other carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when animal fat drips on an open flame or red-hot coals and makes smoke. The smoke then comes in contact with the meat, and you eat it. (Smoked meat has these same carcinogens, by the way.)


Judging from animal research and human population studies, we believe HCAs and PAHs increase your risk of various cancers. They do this by damaging DNA. But we don’t know how much is too much.

One guideline to consider is from the American Institute for Cancer Research. They say red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, increases the risk of colon cancer, so they recommend eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat a week. (Two to three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards.) Following this standard might decrease the amount of carcinogen-containing meat you eat by default. In fact, some researchers suspect HCAs and PAHs may be partly responsible for the increased colon-cancer risk anyway.

Simply choosing very lean meat reduces PAHs. There are also a few ways you can reduce HCAs.

  1. If you’re going to grill or otherwise cook at a very high emperature, marinate meats in spice-filled marinades for an hour before cooking. This dramatically reduces the development of HCAs. Scientists aren’t certain why but believe the reason may be herbs’ and spices’ antioxidant properties. When researchers compared spicy marinades with an oil-and-vinegar mixture, the former showed the most dramatic reduction of HCAs.

  2. Slow-roast, stew or pan-fry at a lower temperature (under about 400 degrees).

  3. Flip meats every minute, which helps avoid charring the surface. (Charring creates a lot of HCAs.)newsletter-graphic-free2

Finally, fruits and vegetables don’t form HCAs and PAHs. Grilling them is a great way to add variety, try new flavors and stretch your dollar. And we all know they reduce your risk of developing cancer to boot!

KATHRYN ALLEN, M.A., R.D., C.S.O., L.D./N., is Director of Nutrition Therapy at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.

Last updated and/or approved: March 2010. Originally appeared in July/August 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of July 2009.

Comments (3)add comment
written by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. , April 16, 2012

Anonymous, you're welcome.

Deb, maybe just do the tips to reduce the risk and add some veggies. I don't want to take away all of your fun. smilies/smiley.gif

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written by Deb Zappa , April 14, 2012

As campers, we like our meat grilled as a benefit of camping. Wouldn't you know that grilling may be bad for us which probably offsets the benefits of taking to the hills. I suppose there is some hope in ongoing research to determine how much is too much. Great info, though.
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written by anonymous , July 17, 2009

Thank you for the excellent tips on how to grill and to keep it healthy and safe.
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