The Healthy BBQ


By Lisa Tsakos RHN

One of the joys of summer is cooking on the grill or over an open fire. Before your next backyard cookout, be aware of potential health concerns associated with grilling and the charring of meat.

Two cancer-causing by-products are associated with the grilling of beef, poultry, lamb, pork, and fish. The first involves a well-known group of carcinogens called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs.

HCAs form when creatinine, a waste product of muscle metabolism, amino acids and sugars react at high temperatures.[1] HCAs begin forming at approximately 300°F, whether meat is cooked on an outdoor grill or in a frying pan indoors. Cooking at higher temperatures and for longer periods of time increases the HCAs produced.

The second carcinogen associated with grilling, particularly charcoal grilling, is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).[2],[3] PAHs are formed when fat from meat drips onto coal or a hot surface, creating chemicals in smoke that are carried back to the meat. PAHs can also form directly on the food when it is charred. These substances are endocrine disruptors that can affect hormones and health.[4]

Fortunately, meat can be grilled safely with a few preventative measures:

  • Marinate the meat. A marinade containing vinegar, olive oil or citrus juices can protect meat and reduce the formation of harmful chemicals. Marinating meat from 30 minutes to two hours has been shown to reduce carcinogen formation during grilling by as much as 99 percent.[5]


  • Prepare a dry rub with black pepper and herbs. Black pepper greatly reduces the formation of HCAs on the surface of meat. Blending black pepper with the herbs rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme, or sage eliminates nearly 100 percent of HCAs. The effect is likely due to the antioxidants carnosic acid, carnosol, and rosmarinic acid, found in these herbs.[6]


  • Avoid eating burned or blackened parts. HCAs are three to four times more prevalent on meat that is burned compared to meat that is cooked without burning.[7] Flip meat frequently to prevent overcooking or charring on one side. Discard charred pieces of meat or vegetables.


  • Trim off excess fat. Fats dripping onto the grill produce PAHs. Choose leaner cuts of meat (like tenderloin, round steaks or loin chops)[8] and trim off visible fat on other cuts of meat.


  • Use a drip pan. This keeps fat from dripping onto coals and causing flare-ups. Avoid stabbing meat with a fork as it causes fat to drip onto the coals. Wrapping meat in foil before grilling helps to keep food from burning, fat from dripping, and keeps smoke away from the meat.


  • Sear without fear. Briefly sear meat on the outside leaving the inside lightly cooked. If you’re concerned the meat is undercooked, pre-cook it in the oven first, and finish on the grill. This can eliminate up to 90 percent of carcinogens.[9] Use a thermometer to assess the internal temperature. The USDA Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures[10] are:
    • Steaks & roasts – 145°F
    • Fish – 145°F
    • Fresh Pork – 145°F
    • Ground beef – 160°F
    • Poultry – 165°F


  • Cook smaller portions of grilled meats. Avoid well-done meat as shorter cooking time produces fewer HCAs. Smaller or thinner cuts of meat cook quickly. Cut meat into kebob-sized cubes to thread onto skewers.


  • Keep your grill clean. The build-up from the bottom of the grill can be a source of cancer-causing agents. To clean the grill, turn the heat to high with the lid closed for about 10 minutes.


  • Eat more veggies and fruit. Vegetables and fruit don’t form HCAs when they’re grilled,[11] and they have cancer-fighting abilities that can counteract the harmful effects of grilling. At the next family barbecue, fill your plate with grilled vegetables, green salad, mixed berries and watermelon and make meat a side dish, or enjoy a veggie burger instead.


Happy BBQing!


Lisa Tsakos, R.H.N. is a nationally recognized holistic nutritionist, educator and author specializing in weight management and corporate nutrition programs. Lisa is a co-author of the Natural Nutrition Coach® program.













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