The grill's hidden danger: What barbecue favorites are putting your health at risk?

By Jillian MacMath, Staff Writer

Summertime is quickly approaching, and for many, that means it's time to fire up the grill. However, experts say, you may want to think twice before hot dogs and burgers become your seasonal go-tos.

Research shows that cooking meat on the grill can put you at a higher risk for cancers, including colorectal, breast, stomach and pancreatic cancers.

According to Karen Collins, nutrition advisor for American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), two cancer-causing compounds can form when meat is cooked on the grill: HCAs and PAHs.

HCAs, or heterocyclic amines, are formed when animal protein is exposed to intense heat.

PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, form in smoke and are deposited on meat. Most often, this occurs when fat from meat drips onto charcoal or another heat source, causing smoke to develop.

Despite research, Collins says it's too soon to tell whether the risk is equal for all people.

“At this point, inconsistent research suggests that genetic differences may cause some to face a greater risk than others despite the same exposure,” she told AccuWeather, so all people should take the same precautions for now.

But if you can’t fathom putting the grill away for good, these risks can be mitigated by following a few simple steps.

“Since the HCAs are really a reaction to exposure to intense heat, two different steps can reduce that. One is simply by reducing the temperature,” Collins said.

When meat is cooked to the same degree of doneness at a high temperature - finishing just two minutes faster - the amount of HCAs that form is substantially increased.

“You can cut that simply by cooking just a little bit slower. Cook it on medium instead of cooking it at such a high temperature,” she said.


(AP Photo/Meera Sodha)

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Well-done, blackened meat also has much higher levels of these compounds - so consider limiting the exposure to this intense heat by not cooking animal proteins to super well-done levels.

Acidic marinades, such as lemon juice, vinegar, wine, and herbs and spices can reduce the formation of HCAs by over 90 percent, according to the AICR.

“Considering that this makes things taste delicious and is a great way to make inexpensive foods taste better, that’s a win-win,” Collins said.

Overall, the AICR recommends that you reduce your risk by making overall lifestyle changes and eating healthier foods, generally.

It's important to focus most meals around whole grains, fruits and vegetables, some of which contain phytochemicals that naturally deactivate harmful carcinogens.

"When we grill plant foods, the HCAs that we’re talking about can’t form. That only forms in animal products, so there's a big difference between grilling a grill full of hotdogs and grilling kabobs that have a little bit of meat and loads of delicious vegetables," she said.

"You have to keep it in the big picture."

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit


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