Dietitian Dish: Can Grilling Meat Increase Your Risk of Cancer?

July 03, 2018

By Saba Zahid, RD, LDN Patient Experience Manager, Unidine Corporation

Nothing says summer quite like a barbeque. But this all-American ritual is raising some health concerns, particularly if the grill is loaded up with meat.

According to growing evidence, certain chemicals are formed when muscle meat, including beef and pork, are cooked at high temperatures. Certain compounds undergo biochemical reactions when cooked, becoming carcinogenic compounds. These carcinogenic compounds, known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are capable of altering DNA, which can cause cells to mutate. While most of the research has been conducted in labs, accumulating evidence is indicating there may also be human risks of cancer.

HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatinine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. Most HCAs are found in meat that has been fried or grilled at temperatures around 300 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. PAHs are formed when fat and juices drip from meat creating smoke. The PAHs transfer to the meat when the smoke surrounds the meat during the cooking process.

Before you throw out the grill, you can still enjoy a classic summer cook-out if you keep a few things in mind:

  1. Your body has a process for eliminating toxins and other things your body doesn’t need. Your liver naturally detoxifies your body and can eliminate these compounds.  (Check out our previous article on detoxes here).
  2. Moderation is key. Continued, repeated, and overwhelming exposure to the compounds increases the risk that a pesky toxin could remain in your body, so keep the golden rule in mind: MODERATION.
  3. Grill it, don’t burn it: HCAs are found in burned or charred parts of meat so avoid blackening your meat. Removed any charred portions of meat before eating your grilled proteins.
  4. Choose lean meats: Fat drippings are necessary for PAH development, so less fat means less PAH development. Additionally, avoid using the fat drippings to make gravy.
  5. Flip it, flip it good: Continuously turning over meat when you are cooking over a high heat source can substantially reduce HCA formation.
  6. Don’t grill your meat naked: Marinating meat before cooking helps lessen HCA formation by keeping the surface of the meat from getting so hot. Additionally, you can add variety and flavor with different kinds of marinade.
  7. Think outside the box: You can use your grill for more than just meat! Season or marinate vegetables like asparagus, parsnips, onions, and squash and throw them on the grill. Vegetables do not contain the proteins that create carcinogens when grilling meat. So load up on the veggies! Fruit can also be grilled; try grilling peaches for a yummy cook-out dessert.

If you need help developing a healthier way of eating, why not try working with one of Shore Medical Center’s Outpatient Nutrition Counseling dietitians? We would love to help you improve your health through diet. To schedule an appointment, contact us at 609-653-4600, option 5. To learn more, visit our website at

Saba Zahid, a registered dietitian from Unidine Corporation, is the patient experience manager for Shore Medical Center’s food and nutrition services. She oversees the medical center's patient food service program, clinical nutrition programs, and community nutrition initiatives.

Unidine is a dining management company that provides food and nutrition services to Shore Medical Center. Undine is committed to fresh food and scratch cooking for all of the clients it serves in healthcare, senior living, and business settings. To learn more, visit


  1. Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis 2004; 44(1): 44-55.
  2. Jagerstad M, Skog K. Genotoxicity of heat-processed foods. Mutation Research 2005; 574 (1-2): 156-172.
  3. Sugimara T, Wakabayashi K, Nakgama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Science 2004; 95(4): 290-299.
  4. Abid Z, Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat, dairy, and cancer. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2014; 100 Suppl 1:386S-893S.
  5. Cross AJ, Ferrucci LM, Risch A, et al. A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: An investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association. Cancer Research 2010; 70(6):2406–2414.
  6. Chiavarini M, Bertarelli G, Minelli L, Fabiani R. Dietary intake of meat cooking-related mutagens (HCAs) and risk of colorectal adenoma and cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients 2017; 9(5). pii: E514.
  7. Nagao M, Tsugane S. Cancer in Japan: Prevalence, prevention and the role of heterocyclic amines in human carcinogenesis. Genes and Environment 2016; 38:16.
  8. Knize MG, Felton JS. Formation and human risk of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines formed from natural precursors in meat. Nutrition Reviews 2005; 63(5):158–165.