BBQ basics: How to avoid cooking up carcinogens

How you grill and your type of marinade can help make your meal healthier.

Andy De Santis, RD 3 minute read July 9, 2021
grilling health

There are ways to grill while cutting down on carcinogens. Getty

There’s nothing quite like creating delicious, nutritious meals in the great outdoors. If you find that your food tastes better when it hits a red-hot grill, whether gas-powered or charcoal, it’s not your imagination. In fact, it has a name: the Maillard Reaction, which is when the heat from your grill breaks down the proteins in your food into amino acids which react with the carbohydrates in the food making it more flavourful.

But as delicious as barbecuing your favourite food is, the way you prepare and grill it could increase your risk for certain types of cancer.

Understanding carcinogens
A carcinogen refers to any biological compound that may contribute to an increased risk of cancer by causing damage to living tissue. Two types of carcinogens can be produced by grilling meat — and to a lesser extent, vegetables: heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which form when meat, fish and poultry is cooked at high temperatures (think char), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which form when fat drips from the meat onto the flame. The chemicals mix with the smoke and stick to the meat.

And while HCAs are formed specifically by mixing amino acids and creatine — a combination you won’t find in any vegetables — burning vegetables also produces carcinogens like benzopyrene, which is found in larger amounts of cigarette smoke.

But there are ways to enjoy barbecuing that are safe and good for your health.

A minimum of half an hour marinating period using some combination of vinegar, lemon juice, herbs, spices and oil can reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds on your meat. In fact, one study found that three herbal marinades had the greatest effect at lowering HCAs: rosemary and thyme mixed with pepper, allspice and salt; oregano mixed with thyme, garlic and onion; and oregano mixed with garlic, basil, onion and parsley.

Avoid charring and large flames
The more you cook and char your meat, the more HCAs and PAHs you will be exposed to, so avoid using very high heat or large flames. This goes for vegetables as well — cooking your asparagus until it’s blackened may not create exactly the same cancer-causing chemicals as a charred steak, but the risk is still there. Cooking in the centre of the grill and cutting off clearly visible fat (mostly with red meat) will also help reduce the likelihood of HCAs and PAHs.

Be mindful of red meat, but more mindful of processed meat
A 2017 study in Gastroenterology found that keeping red meat to around 12 oz ( 350 grams) per week minimizes one’s risk of colorectal cancer — the third most common cause of cancer in Canada. That’s two six ounce servings, or one single 12 oz steak each week.

Processed meats, such as sausages and hot dogs, can also increase your risk of colorectal cancer and other health issues like diabetes and liver disease, so keep the amount you eat to a bare minimum. There are also a number of plant-based replica products that are very similar, without the risk.

Don’t forget the bristles
One other risk of barbecuing garnered some attention a few years ago: the dangers of using a wire brush on your grill. A study in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery about 1,700 Americans went to an emergency room between 2002 and 2014 after having ingested wire bristles that were stuck to their food. So when you clean your grill, try a wooden scraper or pumice stone instead.

Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our community guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.