GREAT BALLS OF FIRE? Eh, Not Such a Hot Idea

High-heat Grilling Can Be Hazardous to Your Health; Here Are Some Safety Tips


July is National Grilling Month, a time for family, friends and neighbors to gather and indulge in tasty, messy-finger goodness straight from the backyard grill. But these summertime delights may actually pose a danger to your health.

When animal foods are cooked at high temperatures, cancer-causing substances called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) may form. Both HCAs and PAHs can cause changes in DNA and increase the risk for developing certain cancers.Most of these chemicals are found in the blackened or charred part of the meat (which ideally should be trimmed prior to eating). According to a report by Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, the most carcinogens from grilling were found in chicken breast (skinless, well-done), steak (well-done), pork (barbecued), salmon (with skin), and hamburger (well-done).

Don’t fret.This doesn’t mean you have to break up with your grill. By controlling time and temperature, distance from the heat source and using the preferred marinates and rubs, you can still make healthy and delicious masterpieces.

Time and temperature. Because HCAs begin to form above 325 degrees Fahrenheit, grill settings should be turned to a low or medium heat, as this makes it harder for meat to char or burn. (Some backyard chefs bake meat in the oven for a few minutes first to partially cook it and therefore reduce potential char.) Use a meat thermometer and cook only as long as necessary to reach the required internal temperatures – not a minute longer.


Distance. Don’t grill your meat on direct heat. Instead, turn on the flame on one side of the grill and place the meat on the other side, then lower the grill lid.


Rubs and soaks. Making your own rubs with black pepper and antioxidant-rich spices such as turmeric, thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint, sage and garlic can cut down on carcinogenic formation by as much as 90 percent. Marinating beef in red wine for six hours before grilling can decrease the number of carcinogens by 40 percent. Beer has also shown to be beneficial. Avoid sugary marinates which may cause carcinogens to form. Never reuse marinade or rub after raw meat has touched it.

Choose wisely. Try to opt for healthy, organic, grass-fed, free-roaming, pasture-raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Avoid highly processed meats with nitrates, as they have a strong link to cancer. Select lean cuts of meat, as fattier cuts drip into the grill and cause more flareups.

Burgers. When cooking burgers, flip those sizzling patties every 30 seconds to help reduce E. coli and produce the lowest levels of HCAs. Resist the impulse to press down on them with your spatula to avoid drips and flares. Consider turkey burgers with minced portabella mushrooms and onions for a healthier alternative to traditional, fat-laden hamburgers.

Fish and shellfish. Brush lightly with heat-resistant oil such as olive or macadamia. You can also marinate or add a spicy-herb rub, then spray with a little oil to keep it from sticking. Cedar planks will impart a nice, smoky flavor and help keep the fish moist.


Chicken. Feel free to go skinless but add a layer of protection by marinating with herbs, spices and oils, and don’t cook on high heat. 



This can be one of the worst offenders for HCAs, so cook your meats to safety standards at medium heat, just until done and no more. Choose smaller, quick-cooking cuts if you can.


Vegetables and fruits. Colorful, healthy veggies contain cancer-fighting antioxidants and offer a good balance to a meat-heavy menu. Grilling favorites include bell peppers, mushrooms, corn, onions and potatoes. Fruits are healthy dessert alternatives; their natural sugars caramelize when heated to provide extra sweetness and flavor.

Sneaky sides. Store bought barbecue fare such as baked beans, coleslaw, macaroni or potato salad can come loaded with saturated fat, salt and added sugars. Instead serve a colorful bean salad, fruit salad or leafy green salad. Whole-grain buns and breads offer extra fiber, flavor and texture. Dieting? Consider an open-faced burger                                                 or lettuce wrap.

Clean up your act. Scrape down your grill with a stainless-steel brush both before and after cooking to remove baked-on residue; do a deep clean once or twice a season with a concentrated multi-purpose cleaner. Don’t forget the grill bottom, where ash and grease build-up often occur.


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