Grilling: Health risks, alternatives and eating well this summer

Vegetables and meat shish kabobs cooking on the grill.

What do you think of when summer comes to mind? Maybe swimming in the pool, taking a relaxing vacation or slathering up the sunscreen before heading outside. What about cookouts and grilling?

While grilling is a summer staple for many, you should take a minute to learn about the potential cancer risks before making it your summer go-to. Luckily, we have tips for safer grilling and ideas for your next cookout!

Is it safe to grill meat?

Research shows that cooking meat—including beef, pork, fish or poultry—at very high temperatures (usually by grilling or pan-frying) can form chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Extended exposure to these chemicals has been shown in animal studies to cause cancer by damaging the DNA of cells.

Research is ongoing, but until more definitive research is available in humans, we rely on what’s been shown in animal models: a link between grilling and cancer.

Remove charred portions of meat prior to consuming.

So, what do I do when I’m grilling this summer?

A piece of very charred meat sits on a wooden cutting board with a blue tablecloth underneath.
Remove charred portions of meat prior to consuming.

The good news is, there are ways you can enjoy grilled food more healthfully:

• Cook meat in a microwave or oven prior to grill exposure to reduce the amount of time it’s exposed to high temperatures.

• Continuously flip meat as you cook it.

• Remove charred portions of meat prior to consuming. Charring happens with various cooking methods, like barbecuing with a low temperature for a long period of time—not just high-heat grilling. If you like your meat crispy, only have it a few times a month, pairing it with vegetables and fiber to make a balanced meal.

• Marinate meat before grilling. This may reduce the formation of carcinogens. Plus, you’ll have a more flavorful meal!

• Studies show a strong link between colorectal cancer and diets high in red and processed meats. When you’re grilling, limit red meats like beef, pork and lamb, and try to completely avoid processed meats like hot dogs.

• Focus your grilling instead on fruits and vegetables. Some of our favorites are this grilled eggplant and portobello sandwich or a grilled pizza with eggplant, tomatoes and feta.

• Alternatives to red and processed meats include fish and chicken. Try grilled fish tacos or grilled chicken thighs with cucumber mint salad.

• Opt for barbecuing instead. Cooking low and slow can prevent the formation of those cancer-causing chemicals.

The bottom line? You don’t need to stop grilling completely, but it may be beneficial to your health to incorporate some of these methods at your next cookout. Do what works for you while taking realistic steps toward a healthier diet.