Health risks of grilling: tips and suggestions on how to reduce them
In each of us there is an atavistic attraction towards grilling, regardless of the seasons: summer, certainly, is the most common period to be seduced by the most inviting aroma there is.
Gathering in front of a live fire can be a relaxing and convivial experience; however our duty is to know what is hidden behind this “scent”, formed by several carcinogenic substances(1) so as to take adequate measures: and reduce the risks arising from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) which are formed on our food during grilling.
How these substances are formed
In Western countries, the excessive consumption of meat, especially red meat, causes several diseases and pathologies (Americans consume approximately 274 pounds of meat per year per person). And consumption increases with the barbecue season, adding another possible cause for pathologies.
While grilling cooking temperatures can reach 300 degrees; of course meat, in order to eliminate biological risks caused by pathogenic organisms, must be properly cooked: the result is obtained by bringing the inner side of meat above 74 degrees.
With high temperatures transformations take place: meat gets cooked, becomes succulent and above all it gets digestible; but there is more.
The fat in the meat begins to melt as it drips over the coals (or firewood), and when it comes into contact with them, substances called PAHs are generated, which are responsible for the pleasure of the palate, but at the same time are “dangerous” for our cells.
These substances, thanks to the smoke and the flames, are transported to the surface of the food on the grill.
The same thing happens to some amino acids in meat, which together with sugars and creatine or creatinine present in animal muscles (beef, pork, fish, poultry) when exposed to high temperatures, generate other mutagenic substances: in other words, as demonstrated by various experiments, they are able to alter human DNA, causing the probable formation of tumors; in particular in mammary glands, lungs, colon, fore-stomach and prostate(2).
Among the causes of these substances, in addition to high temperatures, are also important the long cooking times: to be clear, the more the food is cooked on the grill, the more carcinogenic it becomes!
Tips and suggestions to reduce the health risks of grilling
– use specific hotplates/stones: in this way we create a barrier between the fats and the flames; since the formation takes place with the direct contact of the fats and the live fire, blocking the way, we also limit the risks. However do not keep your food too close to the fire (minimum 15 cm).
– avoid the use of particularly fatty meats: as already said for the formation of PAH, in addition to the barbecue, also fats are needed; therefore to reduce the health risks of grilling avoid particularly fatty cuts and types of meat (such as sausages, ribs, chicken wings, salmon etc.). This suggestion is also useful in limiting the intake of saturated fats, known for their deleterious effects on the cardiovascular system(3,4).
– avoid marinating with added oils and fats: just as explained in the previous point, marinades rich in oils and fats increase drippings and therefore the formation of PAHs and smoke; moreover, herbs such as rosemary, because of their very aromatic oil, contribute to increase the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. However marinating is useful in facilitating cooking, by reducing cooking times: therefore marinate your meat, but dry well any excess liquid. Especially if you use huge amounts of black pepper to season your meat. According to a study of a few years ago, the antioxidants present in black pepper can significantly reduce the formation of HCA(5).
– use quality coals and/or wood: avoid small, dusty pieces, which cause more smoke; choose wood from very hard trees with little resin.
– avoid eating the charred parts: even if some people particularly like them, it is necessary to stop eating the blackened parts where there is a higher concentration of substances dangerous for health. At the same time chicken or fish skin should be avoided for the same reason.
– reduce the frequency of cooking on the grill: even if in many European countries the habit is not comparable to that of the United States (they even report 100 kilos of barbecued meat per person per year), for our own good, but also to contain the greenhouse effect, grilling should be seen as a practice to be limited.
– reduce the amount of meat cooked on barbecue: it is true that substances considered carcinogenic can also form on bruschetta or vegetables, but the concentration found on meat is almost double (studies show a PAH presence factor 3.12 for vegetables, against 5.49 for meat(6)).
Moreover, the advantage of vegetables and bread is that they do not contain creatine; consequently the heterocyclic amines HCA are not formed.
So in order to reduce the health risks of grilling, let’s put less meat and more vegetables, or plant-based foods (such as these lentil burgers) on the barbecue.
– increase the amount of vegetable dishes: the rich composition of antioxidants present in vegetables are able to reduce the negative effects of grilling. In your tables, dedicate more space for fresh salads and raw vegetables.
I would like to add a very personal consideration: maybe you will not believe me, but vegetables after grilling can be even tastier than meat; try it with these eggplants.
– reduce the size of your meat: in this way the cooking time is reduced and therefore the exposure time and the formation of mutagenic substances(7). To be practical, instead of a half-kilo T-bone steak, much better 4-5 or more pieces of meat.
I am sure you have understood the importance of reducing the health risks of grilling, and I hope you will enjoy your moderate portion of meat in a memorable way; however, my greatest wish remains that you will get closer and closer to reducing animal proteins: the world is asking for it, the body is demanding it, ethics is suggesting it
One last thing: before you extinguish the fire properly, it would be a great idea to make full use of it by cooking different vegetables such as corn, potatoes or eggplant, to be used during the week or to be frozen for later.
Enjoy your barbecue and good revolution to all
1) Mutagenic potency of food-derived heterocyclic amines. Felton JS, Knize MG, Wu RW, Colvin ME, Hatch FT, Malfatti MA Mutat Res. 2007 Mar 1; 616(1-2):90-4.
2) Adamson RH, Gustafsson JA, Ito N, Nagao M, Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Yamazoe Y. Heterocyclic amines in cooked foods: possible human carcinogens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., Inc.; 1995.
3) The effect of diet on risk of cancer. Key TJ, Allen NE, Spencer EA, Travis RC Lancet. 2002 Sep 14; 360(9336):861-8. [PubMed] [Ref list]
4) Meat, fish, and colorectal cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into cancer and nutrition. Norat T, et al J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Jun 15; 97(12):906-16.
5) Kansas State University. “Good news for grilling: Black pepper helps limit cancerous compounds in meat, study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 May 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170516105047.htm>.
6) Cheng J, Zhang X, Ma Y, Zhao J, Tang Z. Concentrations and distributions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon in vegetables and animal-based foods before and after grilling: Implication for human exposure. Sci Total Environ. 2019 Nov 10;690:965-972. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.07.074. Epub 2019 Jul 5. PMID: 31302560.
7) Zheng W, Lee SA. Well-done meat intake, heterocyclic amine exposure, and cancer risk. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(4):437-446. doi:10.1080/01635580802710741