Is Grilling Bad For Your Health?

When it's too hot to turn on the kitchen stove, it can only mean one thing: It's grilling season. But before heading outdoors to prepare every meal, we may want to consider some hamburger health hazards. Cooking meat at high temperatures-like grilling, or even roasting and frying-can cause chemical reactions that release some nasty toxins in the air (and our bodies). But before opting for a raw food diet out of pure fear, there are some ways to keep on grilling while staying out of harm's way.

You're Grilling Me-The Need-to-Know

Throwing a sausage on the grill can cause some serious chemical reactions. The biggest worry is that many of the chemicals created have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.In fact, one large study on over 3,000 women found those who consumed a large amount of grilled meat over the course of a year had a 47 percent higher risk of developing breast cancerCooked meat and risk of breast cancer-lifetime versus recent dietary intake. Steck, S.E., Gaudet, M.M., Eng, S.M., et al. Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. Epidemiology. 2007 May;18(3):373-82.. In order to learn more about what's actually causing these health risks, we examined the main chemical reactions that occur when meat meets grill, and what the potentially harmful products of those reactions can do.

  • AGEs: Fat plus protein plus heat may equal trouble. Cooking at high heat can produce a chemical reaction between the fat and protein in meat, creating toxins called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These toxins are linked to the imbalance of antioxidants in the body (aka oxidant stress), along with inflammation, which can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseaseAdvanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. Uribarri, J., Woodruff, S., Goodman, S., et al. Division of Nephrology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY. Journal of the American Dietician Association, 2010 Jun;110(6):911-16.e12.Redefining oxidative stress. Jones, D.P. Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, Whitehead Biomedical Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, 2006 Sep-Oct;8(9-10):1865-79..
  • PAHs: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are a group of over 100 different chemicals found in the smoke emitted from cooking meat on a charcoal grill. PAHs are classified as carcinogens and have been linked to an increased risk of lung and bladder cancerPolycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and cancer in man. Mastrangelo, G., Fadda, E., Marzia, V. Institute of Occupational Medicine, Univeristy of Padova, Consorzio Padova Ricerche, Padova, Italy. Environmental Health Perspectives, 1996 Nov;104(11):1166-70..
  • HCAs: Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are carcinogenic chemicals produced when muscle meats (i.e. beef, pork, chicken, fish) are fired up on the grillFactors affecting human heterocyclic amine intake and the metabolism of PhIP. Knize, M.G., Kulp, K.S., Salmon, C.P., et al. Biology and Biotechnology Research Program, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA. Mutation Research, 2002 Sep 30;506-507:153-62.. They're formed when amino acids (found in protein) and creatine (found in muscle) react at temps above 300 degrees F. Studies have found a connection between HCAs and prostate, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer in adultsReduction of aromatic and heterocyclic aromatic n-hydroxylamines by human cytochrome P450 2S1. Wang, K., Geungerich, F.P. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2013 May 18.Meat intake and cooking techniques: associations with pancreatic cancer. Anderson, K.E., Sinha, R., Kulldorff, M., et al. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. Mutation Research, 2002 Sep 30;506-507:225-31Grilled meat consumption and PhIP-DNA adducts in prostate carcinogenesis. Tang, D., Liu, J.J., Rundle, A., et al. Environmental Health Science, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York, NY. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 2007 Apr;16(4):803-8.A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: an investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association. Cross, A.J., Ferrucci, L.M., Risch, A., et al. Nutritional Epidemiology Branch, Biostatistics Branch, Department of Health and Human Services, National Cancer Institute, NIH, Rockville, Maryland. Cancer Research, 2010 Mar 15;70(6):2406-14..

Top Chef-Your Action Plan

Unlike meat, veggies don't create carcinogens when cooked to a crisp. Still, there's no need to become a vegetarian or toss the grill completely. Try these safer ways to cook up a storm and stay safe in the process:

  • Go old school. Got spare ribs (and spare time?). Traditional BBQ methods are a safer route to take, since it involves slow cooking of meats over indirect heat.
  • Marinate wisely. Scientists have found marinades can make grilling safer by reducing the amount of carcinogenic compounds released in the airEffect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. Smith, J.S., Ameri, F., Gadgil, P. The Food Science Inst., Kansas State Univ., Manhattan, KS. Journal of Food Science, 2008 Aug;73(6):T100-5.. (It's still unclear why exactly they help.) Try soaking some chicken breasts in one of these healthier options.
  • Nuke it. Pre-cooking meat in a microwave will kick-start the cooking process and lead to less time on the grill. Cooking meat in the micro for two minutes can reduce HCA content up to 95 percentPrevention of mutagen formation in heated meats and model systems. Kikugawa, K. School of Pharmacy, Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Science, Horinouchi, Hachioji, Tokyo, Japan. Mutagenesis, 2004 Nov;19(6):431-9.! (Don't worry, microwaves are safe!)
  • Get a trim. When fat drips onto an open flame, flare-ups can spread nasty chemicals onto the meat. So remove the skin from chicken, and skip fatty meats like sausage and ribs. When food is burned, these chemicals stack up, so remove all charred or burned bits before eating, tooThe dietary charred meat carcinogen 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo4,5-bpyridine acts as both a tumor initiator and promoter in the rat ventral prostate. Nakai, Y., Nelson, W.G., De Marzo, A.M. Department of Urology, Osaka University, Osaka, Japan. Cancer Research, 2007 Feb 1;67(3):1378-84.. Flipping meat frequently at a lower temperature will also help avoid charring.
  • Use a thermometer. To prevent cooking at temps too high, use a thermometer to regulate how hot the grill gets. Steak should be cooked to 145 degrees F, hamburgers at 160 degrees, and chicken at 165 degrees. (To measure, place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, avoiding the bone, fat, and gristle.)
  • Clean the grill. Make sure the grill is nice and clean to avoid cooking on leftover grease and pieces of char. But heads up-cleaning with metal bristles could leave a few pieces of wire behind (to be accidently eaten later on!). The solution? Clean off the grill with a non-wire brush (or an onion!) instead.
  • Color it up. Try eating grilled meats with cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli). These superfoods contain fancy anti-inflammatory nutrients called isothiocyanates that change the way the body breaks down dangerous grilling chemicals, making the meat saferFactors affecting human heterocyclic amine intake and the metabolism of PhIP. Knize, M.G., Kulp, K.S., Salmon, C.P., et al. Biology and Biotechnology Research Program, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA. Mutation Research, 2002 Sep 30;506-507:153-62..
  • Don't go well-done. Meat that's overcooked is associated with no-good chemicals and the health problems that can followFormation and human risk of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines formed from natural precursors in meat. Knize, M.G., Felton, J.S. Biosciences Directorate, University of California, Lawrence Livermore National, Livermore, CA. Nutrition Reviews, 2005 May;63(5):158-65.. So follow the recommended temps for safe meat, but make sure not to eat meat that's too undercooked or raw either.
  • Leave the meat! The easiest solution to stay away from harmful chemicals is to say no thanks to meat. Luckily, there are many meat-free options that are great on the grill. (Ice cream, anyone?)

The Takeaway

Grilling meat at high temperatures can release harmful chemicals into the air and our bodies. Luckily, there are ways to prepare meat safely without leaving the grill behind.

Article originally published August 2012. Updated May 2013.