Can Summer Grilling Cause Cancer?
10 Tips to Reduce Toxic Exposures

Outdoor grilling is a much-anticipated ritual of summer. The smell of grilled vegetables, fish, and meats wafting through the evening air is enough to inspire any of us to disconnect from our screens and take it easy.

However, did you know that grilling can also create toxic compounds that have been linked to adverse health effects ranging from headaches and respiratory irritation to many forms of cancer?

For example, when meats are cooked at very high temperatures HCAs, or heterocyclic amines, form. Other cooking methods produce these chemicals as well, but grilling often produces charred edges that typically contain HCAs in their purest form. Studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with increased risk of cancers, such as colorectal, breast, prostate, pancreatic, lung, stomach, and esophageal.

Additionally, when the juices and fat from meat drop onto hot surfaces and create smoke, PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, form, which are then deposited on the surface of the meat. These chemicals are thought to be a human carcinogen, and have been linked to both autoimmune thyroid conditions and lower birth weight in babies of exposed mothers.

Lastly, petroleum-based lighter fluids can emit VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. While not all VOCs are necessarily harmful, they have been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects, from respiratory tract irritation and headaches to kidney damage and cancer.

Did you lose your appetite? Don’t worry: You don’t need to retire your grilling utensils just yet. If you incorporate the below 10 tips on how to reduce toxic exposures, you can continue enjoying the fire-roasted flavor of summer grilling!

1. Avoid “Well Done” Burgers and Steaks

Cooking meats until they are well done poses two issues: By maximizing the cooking time, meat is exposed to high temperatures for longer (creating more HCA-laden char), and there is a greater opportunity for fat and juices to drip off (creating PAH-contaminated smoke). In 2005, a study from the National Cancer Institute found that “very well done meat was positively associated with prostate cancer risk.”

2. Get Informed About Marinades

Marinades with acidic elements, such as wine, vinegar, or lemon juice, prevent PAHs from sticking to cooked meats. Marinades that contain sugar, such as barbecue sauce, should only be used in the last few minutes of grilling, as they encourage charring. In fact, years ago, a study found that using barbecue sauce caused an increase of toxic chemicals that are formed during the grilling process.

3. Trim the Fat

Trimming meats will reduce the amount of fat that will drip into the grill, which forms PAH-contaminated smoke. This will reduce toxicity of your meats!

4. Use a Drip Rack, or Wrap Foods in a Foil Packet

Wrapping foods in a packet serves a similar purpose to trimming the fat: Less fat, juices, and smoke will contaminate meat with PAHs.

5. Turn the Meat Often

Scientific studies have found that continuously flipping the protein over high heat can reduce the formation of HCAs, in comparison to simply leaving meat on the heat source.

6. Remove the Charred Portions

Charred bits contain HCAs in their purest form, so eliminating them from your meal is a high-impact way to make grilling safer.

7. Incorporate More Veggies

HCAs form when amino acids and creatine — a chemical found in muscle tissue — react at high cooking temperatures. According to experts, since vegetables don’t contain creatine, grilling vegetables and fruits is healthier than grilling meats. Plus, many vegetables have cancer-fighting and immune-boosting properties.

8. Keep Your Grill Clean

Charred, carcinogenic residues that contain high concentrations of HCAs can stick to the grill after each use and contaminate future meals, so it’s important to remove these charred bits (it can be as easy as using aluminum foil and vinegar).

9. Choose Thinner Cuts of Meats

Thinner cuts of meat will require less cooking time, which will reduce the meat’s exposure to high temperatures, and therefore, carcinogenic chemicals.

10. Reduce Your Use of Lighter Fluid

If you’re using a charcoal grill, remember that petroleum-based lighter fluid has been found to release VOCs, which can be inhaled and contaminate your food. Healthier fire starters include chimney and electric charcoal starters.

For more tips on how you can improve both human and environmental health, check out my book, A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures, or my website,

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