Keeping Grilled Seafood Safe

It’s substantially safer to grill fish compared with chicken or red meats, especially if you observe these three preparation and cooking caveats, in descending order of importance:

  • Minimize cooking time (which yields the best results anyway).
  • Before serving grilled fish, remove the skin and its fatty under layer, and any charred portions.
  • Use Cedar or Alder Grilling Planks to protect fish from charring on the high heat of the grill.
  • Marinate fish before grilling.

Concerns about the safety of grilled “muscle foods” — that is, meat and fish — relate to the creation of two kinds of potentially carcinogenic compounds during high-heat cooking: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

PAHs form when fat drips onto a flame, heating element, or hot coals. PAHs rise with the smoke and are deposited on the food. They can also form directly on the food when it is charred.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are less closely linked to grilling, since they can form in grilled, broiled and pan-fried meats and fish. HCAs are by-products of the Maillard (browning) reaction, which gives grilled meat or fish some of its characteristic flavor. The hotter the temperature and the more well done the meat or fish, the more HCAs get formed.

Concerns about the HCAs that form during grilling of meat or fish are legitimate, but may be overblown by the media. According to the authors of a recent review article from Japan, where people eat far more fish than meat and where, accordingly, grilled fish constitute the single greatest source of HCAs, “… the content of HCAs in dishes consumed in ordinary life is low and not sufficient in itself to explain human cancer …” (Sugimura T 2004).

Like PAHs, the HCAs formed during grilling concentrate in the fat drippings, and it appears that marinating food reduces the formation of HCAs (Johansson MA 1994, Salmon CP 1997).

And, as the table below shows, one test of grilled skin-on salmon produced concentrations of HCAs 86 times lower than the levels that occurred in a test of grilled chicken, and almost five times lower than the HCA levels that occur in a test of grilled steak.

In fact, in a Swiss study published in 1993 (Gross GA), researchers found no detectable levels of HCAs in grilled fish. It is reasonable to assume that fish grilled lightly (i.e., until just done), without the skin and its fatty under layer, will contain the lowest levels of HCAs.

To ensure the lowest intake of HCAs and PAHs, remove the skin and its fatty under layer from grilled fish before consuming it, trim fat before grilling meat, and keep a spray bottle of clean water handy to prevent the fiery flare-ups that occur when fat drips onto hot coals or surfaces.

FOOD HCAs (nanograms per 100 grams*)
Chicken breast skinless-boneless, grilled 14,300 ng1
Steak, grilled, well done 810 ng2
Pork, barbecued 470 ng3
Salmon, grilled with skin 166 ng4

*about 3.5 ounces grilled

Different Fuel Sources: Considering the Pros and Cons

You can get great results with any kind of grill, but there are some distinctions you may want to consider. We’ve laid out some of the facts for your consideration.

Gas (Propane)

Gas grills offer the obvious advantages of convenience and control: you can be grilling in seconds if needed, and you can turn the heat up or down at will. Gas is also much cleaner in environmental terms, since it emits far fewer air pollutants and greenhouse gases. (See “global warming” sidebar at right.) And you can impart wonderful, woody flavor by adding mesquite, hickory or other aromatic wood chips to the gas fire.


Electric grills are less energy-efficient than gas grills, cannot produce the effects of real fire, and contribute the most to global warming. Not recommended.

Hardwood (Lump) Chunk Charcoal

Of the three fuel sources, pure hardwood charcoal yields the finest flavor. It also provides a hotter fire than briquettes and does not require starter fluid. Most domestically produced brands use scrap wood, thus avoiding deforestation.

Instead of starter fluid, use a steel charcoal “chimney”, which will get a good amount red hot in 15-20 minutes. If you’re cooking for a big crowd, use a big grill and start two chimneys-full of charcoal at once.

Charcoal Briquettes

There’s little good to say about charcoal briquettes, which were invented as a way to profit from wood scraps left over from the process of making Model-T Fords. Charcoal briquettes consist of a blend of charcoal and coal, plus a starchy binding agent, an accelerant such as nitrate, and ash-whitening agents such as lime or borax, to let the user know when the briquettes are ready.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to charcoal briquettes is the lighting fluid: a foul, polluting petroleum distillate, traces of whose odor can end up on your food. (“Match-light” briquettes are equally noxious.)

If you’re using charcoal, you can use a chimney starter to avoid the petroleum taste that self-lighting briquettes impart, as well as the unhealthful volatile organic compounds emitted by burning lighter fluid. This simple device consists of a steel cylinder that holds coals in the top two-thirds and newspaper underneath to light.

Grilling and global warming

These facts come from the US government’s Oak Ridge labs.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from grills are relatively insignificant. Nearly 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted on July 4 — the biggest barbecue day of the year — or just 0.003 percent of the U.S. annual total of 5.8 billion tons.
  • Electric grills have the highest CO2 emissions of all grill types — 15 lbs per hour — thanks to power-plants’ CO2 emissions.
  • Gas grills emit the least CO2: only 5.6 lbs per hour.
  • Charcoal briquettes emit about 11 lbs of CO2 per hour. (Hardwood charcoal emits somewhat less CO2, and you can burn less because it contains one-third more heat energy, compared with charcoal briquettes.)
  • If all the charcoal grills in the US were fueled by gas, CO2 emissions from grilling would drop by one-fourth.

Used with permission from

HCA Footnotes

1. Sinha R, Rothman N, Brown ED, Salmon CP, Knize MG, Swanson CA, Rossi SC, Mark SD, Levander OA, Felton JS. High concentrations of the carcinogen 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo- [4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP) occur in chicken but are dependent on the cooking method. Cancer Res. 1995 Oct 15;55(20):4516-9.

2. Sinha R, Rothman N, Salmon CP, Knize MG, Brown ED, Swanson CA, Rhodes D, Rossi S, Felton JS, Levander OA. Heterocyclic amine content in beef cooked by different methods to varying degrees of doneness and gravy made from meat drippings. Food Chem Toxicol. 1998 Apr;36(4):279-87.

3. Murray S, Lynch AM, Knize MG, Gooderham MJ. Quantification of the carcinogens 2-amino-3,8-dimethyl- and 2-amino-3,4,8-trimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline and 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine in food using a combined assay based on gas chromatography-negative ion mass spectrometry. J Chromatogr. 1993 Jul 2;616(2):211-9.

4. Kataoka H, Nishioka S, Kobayashi M, Hanaoka T, Tsugane S. Analysis of mutagenic heterocyclic amines in cooked food samples by gas chromatography with nitrogen-phosphorus detector. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol. 2002 Nov;69(5):682-9.


  • Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Sci. 2004 Apr;95(4):290-9. Review.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. 2005. 11th Report on Carcinogens. Available at
  • Gross GA, Turesky RJ, Fay LB, Stillwell WG, Skipper PL, Tannenbaum SR. Heterocyclic aromatic amine formation in grilled bacon, beef and fish and in grill scrapings. Carcinogenesis. 1993 Nov;14(11):2313-8.
  • Salmon CP, Knize MG, Felton JS. Effects of marinating on heterocyclic amine carcinogen formation in grilled chicken. Food Chem Toxicol. 1997 May;35(5):433-41.
  • Johansson MA, Jagerstad M. Occurrence of mutagenic/carcinogenic heterocyclic amines in meat and fish products, including pan residues, prepared under domestic conditions. Carcinogenesis. 1994 Aug;15(8):1511-8.
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Fourth of July no picnic for the nation’s environment. Accessed online May 14, 2007 at
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