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Dear Iris: Are My Grilling Days Over?

Dear Iris,

I love grilling — I mean love it. What’s summer without a cookout? But I’m nervous because I heard grilled foods might cause cancer. Is this true? Will I be putting myself at greater risk if I eat this type of food?



As a dietitian and nutritionist, I love grilling too, and I want to share tips I hope will help you feel confident about cooking out, because it is a safe thing to do even if you’re concerned about cancer.

Here’s what you need to know: First, grilled foods do not cause cancer. No single type of food does.

Yes, it’s true that certain chemicals can form during the grilling process, but there are specific things you can do to reduce exposure to those chemicals when cooking on the grill.

The two chemicals of most concern when it comes to cancer are called Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). 

  • HCAs can form when animal protein is cooked over high heat on the grill. 

  • PAHs are found in the smoke on a grill that rises up as fat/juices drip down and sizzle on the heat surface.  

The goal isn’t to stop grilling but rather to minimize HCAs and PAHs when you’re grilling food. How do you do that?  

The best way to reduce HCAs and PAHs is to grill more vegetables and fewer meats. That’s because vegetables don’t have the same amount of protein and fat as red meat, sausage, hot dogs, etc. Vegetables don’t drip fat onto the heat surface generating smoke like many meats can. And since vegetables are much lower in protein, they don’t form HCA’s the same way meat(s) cooking on the grill can.

This doesn’t mean you can never grill burgers, fish, chicken, or a steak. In fact, here are 8 key things to do if/when you’re grilling animal protein. Each tip is followed by an explanation of how it helps to limit your exposure to HCAs and PAHs.   

  1. Choose lean types of meat and remove skin and excess fat before grilling. This gets rid of some of the fat that would otherwise drip down and create more smoke (risk of PAHs) on the grill.

  2. Use smaller cuts of meat such as chicken kebabs and skewer vegetables and meat together. Smaller pieces of meat take less time to cook on the grill and less time can mean fewer HCAs and PAHs.

  3. Marinate meats using a marinade that contains vinegar and/or lemon. Acidic marinades make it harder for smoke (and PAHs) to stick to the surface of the meat as it’s cooking on the grill.

  4. Avoid marinades and sauces with honey/sugar because they tend to char/burn. If you’re using a thick BBQ-type sauce, wait to put it on until the last 1-2 minutes of grilling.

  5. Use a barrier when grilling meat, such as a piece of foil (poke a few holes in it) or a cedar plank. This prevents smoke (PAHs) from sticking to the surface of meats as they’re cooking.

  6. Don’t grill frozen meat – including burgers; thaw all meats in the refrigerator before grilling. Frozen meat is on the grill longer, upping the risk of undesirable chemicals forming.

  7. When grilling burgers (ground meats of all kinds) flip them once a minute. This keeps juices trapped inside the burger instead of dropping down on the heat to make smoke (fewer PAHs).

  8. Avoid “smashing” meats with the back of a spatula because that increases smoke production (PAH formation).

With these 8 action steps, you’re ready to fire up the barbie while keeping cancer-related risks in check. 

For recipe inspiration here are some ways to grill more/new veggies. What I love about these ideas is they go beyond the usual eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and corn. My favorite vegetables to grill include kale, broccolini, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts.  

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Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD, LDN

Senior Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist

Iris Oncology

Stephanie Meyers is a Senior Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Iris Oncology with 25 years of experience delivering compassionate and evidence-based nutrition care to those affected by cancer. She’s the former Nutrition Manager at The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and presents seminars worldwide on mindful eating, family nutrition, and cancer survivorship. Stephanie is also the author of, End the Mealtime Meltdown: Using The Table Talk Method to Free Your Family From Daily Food Struggles and Picky Eating and the founder of Families Eating Well, a nutrition practice helping parents coach healthy eating skills in kids. 

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.