Ask the RD

by Lourdes Castro, MS, RD on May 22, 2013

Food for Thought

During summer months I love to grill, but I’ve heard that grilled food can contain carcinogens. Does eating grilled food increase my chances of getting cancer?

Answer: Considering there is no evidence that grilled food causes cancer, there is no need to close the lid on your grill for good, but you can be more mindful about how you use it.

It has been established that foods cooked over a hot flame for a prolonged period of time contain heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds formed in meat, poultry and fish that, according to the National Cancer Institute, can cause cancer in animals. However, it is unclear if exposure to high levels of these chemicals can cause cancer in humans.

How Are These Chemicals Formed?

HCAs are found mostly in charred meats after amino acids, sugars and creatine (all found naturally in muscle protein) react at high temperatures (above 350 degrees Fahrenheit). PAHs are formed when fat and juices from a piece of meat drip onto the fire, causing flames and smoke that contain the compounds.

It’s important to remember that searing, broiling and pan-frying can also create HCAs and PAHs—and no official recommendation has been made to stop cooking food to reduce our cancer risk. Therefore, we should not single out the grill as a potential health risk.

When you do grill, incorporate the following tips to minimize or prevent HCA and PAH formation:

  • Focus on fish. Because fish cooks quickly and rarely drips fat onto flames, it tends to generate fewer HCAs and PAHs.
  • Trim meats. Removing outer layers of fat reduces dripping.
  • Use marinades or rubs containing wine, rosemary or turmeric. Studies published in the Journal of Food Science have reported that marinades containing wine or commonly available herbs and spices are effective at decreasing the levels of HCAs in meat. Fresh rosemary and turmeric are especially powerful.
  • Don’t overcook your meat. A study by the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found that those who preferred very well-done steak had a 60% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It has been inferred that the longer cooking time causes more chemicals to form in the meat.

Another great option for summer cookouts is to grill your fruits and vegetables. Because HCAs and PAHs form only in muscle proteins, fruits and vegetables can be grilled without any worry about chemicals. In addition, fruits and veggies are packed with antioxidants, which may counter or reduce exposure to the HCAs and PAHs in other foods.

Ultimately, you don’t have to close your grill. Grill your food wisely and remember to include lots of fruits and vegetables!

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About the Author

Lourdes Castro, MS, RD

Lourdes Castro, MS, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

As a registered dietitian, Lourdes is an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s department of Nutrition, Food Studies & Public Health and holds a Masters degree in nutrition from Columbia University. She is the author of three cookbooks Simply Mexican; Eat, Drink, Think in Spanish and Latin Grilling and is the director of the Biltmore Culinary Academy. Visit her website at