To Grill or Not to Grill?

Is eating grilled meat safe?

Over recent years, many studies have shown that meat cooked at high temperature may increase the risk of colorectal cancer, among other types of cancers. Such studies attribute the risk of cancers to two compounds: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCA) that are found in meat when cooked over open flames, or at high temperature (such as grilling).

Heterocyclic amines (HCA)

When proteins in meat, including chicken and fish, are cooked at high temperature, carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA) are formed, especially when the meat is charred.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)

Fat from your meat drips into your grill’s flame, causing it to flare up. The flame and resulting smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which have been linked to cancer.

PAHs come from the smoke; HCAs are from blackened bits of charred meat.

Fruits and vegetables are less likely to form carcinogenic compounds at high heat, so try swapping meat with some vegetables like tomatoes, onions and sweet potatoes.

To prevent smoke and charring, remove visible fat that can cause a flare-up, for example, removing the skin of a chicken.

Try not to overcook the meat. If you’ve ever grilled food that was charred on the outside but undercooked on the inside, chances are the wrong grilling method was used. Flipping the meat frequently can prevent charring.

Another way to minimize HCAs and PAHs is to marinate the meat before grilling. Acidic ingredients such as vinegar or lemon juice are good examples for marinating the meat. Marinades add flavour to the food you are going to grill and also prevent it from drying out.

My opinion, eating moderate amounts of grilled meat including fish, meat and poultry cooked “without charring” does not pose a problem.

Eating well means eating a variety of food that will provide the nutrients that you need to maintain your health and strength. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to cook your food if you want to stay away from cancer.

Further reading:

(1) Get Grilling: Pro Tips for the BBQ. 2014.

(2) Healthy Grilling by Karen Ansel. 2016.

Marcus Lee, Dietitian