Healthy Grilling: Reduce Your Risk

Now that we are in the full swing of summer, many of us will be cooking a lot more of our food on the barbeque. While BBQing is a great way to cook delicious meals, unfortunately it does bring some significant risks that can have lasting effects on our health – namely an increased risk of cancer. The good news is that there are some simple ways to significantly reduce and even eliminate these risks and make your food taste better as well!

The Bad News

Research tells us that people who consume higher amounts of well-done and barbecued meats are at a higher risk of certain cancers including colon, pancreatic and bladder cancers. Why is this?

When you grill meat at very high temperatures (i.e. on a BBQ), the sugars and amino acids in the meat naturally produce toxic chemicals called heterocyclic amines – or HCAs. These are the same cancer-causing agents found in cigarette smoke. Nasty!

Additional cancer-causing chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – or PAHs – can also form when the fat and juices from meat drip onto the BBQ and create smoke. When the smoke flares up, these PAHs are then deposited on the surface of meat.

On top of that, something called advanced glycation end-products – or AGEs – are also produced when cooking at high heat. AGEs are associated with advanced aging, increased inflammation and the development (or worsening) of degenerative diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, chronic kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Good News

This is all pretty alarming and disappointing since the barbecue is such an easy way to enjoy our summer meals. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to minimize and even completely eliminate these cancer-causing toxins. Follow these tips to reduce your risk and enjoy summer grilling.

Marinate Your Meat

Marinating meat has been shown to reduce carcinogens formed during grilling by as much as 99%. And it only takes a few minutes of marinating to get the full cancer-preventing effect.

The marinade must be made with an acid like vinegar and lemon juice or with beer and wine. But it must not include sugars – like most store-bought BBQ sauces and marinades. Sugary marinades can triple the HCA levels in grilled meat.

How does this work? The marinades contain anti-oxidants that block the formation of HCAs, PAHs and AGEs. They also act as a barrier to any smoke that is produced during grilling.

Marinade Recipe

1-2 lemons, juiced

4 cloves garlic

1-2 tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped

sea salt and pepper


Combine all the ingredients, pour over your favourite meat (this one is best with chicken) and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. Grill and enjoy!

Use Fresh Herbs

Research has shown that fresh herbs including garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano and thyme also possess powerful anticancer action in grilled meats.

So adding fresh herbs to your marinade or using dry rubs containing these herbs will also significantly reduce your risk.

Grill Smart

Well-done meat has 3.5 times more HCAs than medium-rare meat. So, to avoid carcinogens, cook your meat for less time and flip it more often to avoid charring. You can also sear your meat quickly, then turn off he burner that is directly under the meat while keeping the other burners on. It will take a little longer to cook but you will reduce the charring and production of those cancer-causing HCAs and PAHs.

Once you have cooked the food, there is one more simple thing you can do to maximize flavour and minimize carcinogens: cut off the charred bits! Cutting off any charred pieces of the meat will also drastically lower the amount of carcinogens in your meat.

Add Vegetables

Foods higher in protein and fat produce the most HCAs, AGEs and PAHs. Bacon and fried pork produce the greatest amount followed by beef and then chicken. But vegetables don’t produce the same carcinogens when grilled. So reduce the amount of meat you are grilling and add in more grilled vegetables. Or try making kabobs with smaller pieces of meat and lots of vegetables.

Studies also show that spinach, parsley and cruciferous vegetables inhibit the mutagenic (or tumour-producing) activity of HCAs. So adding these to your meal may reduce the cancer-causing effects of consuming grilled meats.

Enjoy A Glass

The same studies have also showed similar anticancer reductions of HCAs with red wine, beer and teas (black, green and rooibos). So, you may also choose to enjoy a glass with your summer BBQ. Of course, too much wine and beer will increase your risk of certain cancers so keep the enjoyment to one glass with your meal!

I personally love grilling my food in the summer. By incorporating all of these easy tips, I can enjoy a delicious, nutritious summer meal without worrying that I am putting myself, my family or my guests at any additional risk.


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