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Summer is here – the prime season for BBQing. The smell of meat cooking on the grill is known for turning heads and bringing family and friends together! While the smell of grilled foods may make your mouth water, many are not aware of the harmful substances that we consume through grilling our food. An issue of The Harvard Health Letter indicates that these harmful substances, known as heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PCH’s), are carcinogenetic substances with cancer causing properties.

When cooking meat at high temperatures you not only risk robbing the nutrients present, but also increase the amount of HCA’s that are produced. The HCA compounds we consume after grilling generate oxidative stress from free radicals that can damage our DNA and initiate cancer development.

Furthermore, cooking  fatty meat increases the opportunity for cancer causing chemicals to form. When fat and juices drip from the meat onto the grill, they induce flames, often resulting in charring of the meat. Through this process, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PCH’s) form.

You may now be fearful that this news means summer BBQ’s are out of the picture. Well, fear not my grill-seeking friends! While grilling is not the first choice for cooking your meats, you can still enjoy this classic North American experience with tips provided by the National Cancer Institute and The Harvard Health Letter on how we can reduce our exposure to HCA’s and PCH’s when grilling!

One of the most effective ways to reduce the presence of these harmful chemicals when grilling your meat is to grill at low temperatures and cook smaller pieces of meat. By avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame, you will substantially decrease production of HCA’s and PCH’s. Keep in mind the more time your meat spends on the grill will increase the amount of chemicals produced. Smaller pieces of meat will allow your meat to cook faster at lower temperatures – say yes to kabobs!

According to the Journal of Food Science, marinating your meat rich in polyphenol rich antioxidants prior to grilling along with flipping your meat often will also help reduce the amount of chemicals formed. Marinating meats for approximately 1 hour and formulated with oil, water, vinegar mixture base significantly decrease the presence of HCA and PCH. One great spice to add to you marinated that is high in polyphenol is tumeric! When shopping for charcoal, picking out the most natural charcoal possible will help in avoiding potentially harmful chemicals while cooking.

A key tip to keep in mind when grilling all items is to avoid having the food directly on the flames. If there is a top shelf on your grill, this is a great place to cook. Although it may take longer to cook, this will minimize HCA and PCH production. If your meat does become charred, simply removing the charred portions will reduce exposure to these chemicals.

Understanding these health risks will enable us to develop a safer approach to grilling for our friends and family. Summer BBQing is not only a great activity bringing family together but also an opportunity to take advantage of fresh local produce – so load up on those fresh salads. Check out Michelle’s Cancer Fighting Salad recipe, which is a great addition to any summer BBQ!


1.July 2007. Tips for safer and healthier grilling, from the Harvard Health Letter. Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School.

2.J. Smith, F. Ameri, P. Gadgil. Aug 2008. Effects of Marinades on the Formation of Heterocyclic Amines in Grilled Beef Steaks. Journal of Food Science.

3.K. Collins. July 2005. The Grilling Question. American Institute for Cancer Research.