Tips for grilling with lower cancer risk

While it’s commonly believed that eating grilled food may increase your risk of heart disease and cancer, research reveals that the food you grill is “more important than how you grill it.”

Experts from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), a non-profit research and education organization that specializes in the link between lifestyle habits and cancer risk, shared advice about how individuals can stay healthy and prevent cancer when grilling.

Although there is no definitive data that connects grilling to cancer risk, cooking meat at high temperatures via this method can produce two main types of potential carcinogens: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

PAHs are found in smoke and they can stick to the meat on an open fire. On the other hand, HCAs form in meat when the meat proteins react to the high temperature of the grill.

Alice Bender, the Head of Nutrition Programs at AICR, said that when we cook meat at a high temperature, such as by grilling, we also create substances that can cause changes in DNA that may lead to cancer. She added that while the research is fascinating, in the end, what matters is what you cook, not the method used to cook the food.

Data from previous research shows that diets high in red meat can increase an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer. Even regularly consuming small amounts of processed meats may increase the risk for both colorectal and stomach cancers. (Related: Reduce Toxins and Enjoy a Healthier BBQ.)

Because of these findings, the AICR cautions individuals to limit their intake of red meat to no more than 18 ounces of cooked meat weekly. They also warned against the consumption of grilled hot dogs and other processed meats like bacon and sausages.

Bender cautioned that unlike processed meats, grilled fruits and vegetables don’t form HCAs. These delicious alternatives are another reason for you to “grill more plant foods, cut the hot dogs, and limit the size of your burger.”

Grilling guidelines

Here are some grilling tips from the AICR:

  • Cut the fat – Trimming the fat off of cuts of meat can minimize flare-ups and charring. Place the meat in the center of the grill and move coals to the outside. Don’t forget to flip the meat frequently.
  • Don’t grill food too long and precook meats – When grilling larger cuts of meat, reduce the time that the meat is exposed to the flames by cooking it partially (e.g. in the oven or stove). Grill the meat right away after precooking to keep the meat free from bacteria and other food pathogens. You can also cut the meat into smaller pieces prior to grilling.
  • Go green – Instead of hot dogs, try grilling some fruits and vegetables, which produce no HCAs. Diets high in plant foods are also linked to lower cancer risk.

Fruits and vegetables that you can grill

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some fruits and vegetables that you can grill:

  • Avocados – Cut the avocados in half, and gently grill them. Once done, turn them into guacamole that has a smoky and savory flavor.
  • Romaine lettuce – Grilled romaine lettuce has a smoky flavor that makes it great for salads. Slice two heads of romaine lengthwise, then brush the cut sides with some olive oil, pepper, and salt. Grill the lettuce halves cut-side down on a grill. Let them cook over medium-high heat for one to two minutes. Sprinkle the halves with grated Parmesan cheese and red wine vinegar, and serve each half on a plate.
  • Sweet potatoes – Try smoke-roasting sweet potatoes to give them a creamy taste with the right amount of sweetness. Coat the sweet potatoes with butter and cook them over medium-high heat until the skins turn brown and the flesh is tender. This may take at least 40 minutes to an hour. Remove the sweet potatoes, slice them lengthwise, and serve with butter and brown sugar on top.
  • Watermelon – An unlikely choice, but with some heat, smoke, and a bit of salt, even a sweet watermelon can taste savory and, surprisingly, meaty. Grill some watermelons brushed with olive oil, minced onion, salt, and pepper. Five minutes per side should be enough to caramelize the fruit, which can be served as a side. You can also serve it as a “watermelon burger” with some melted cheese and a bun.

You can learn more about grilling tips to minimize cancer risk at

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