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Grilling for Good Health

Written by: Theresa Helfer, MS, RD, Weight Loss Coach – Life Time Fitness

It’s finally summer— time to fire up the grill!  Aromas of mouth watering, juicy steaks (grass fed, of course), chicken sausages and herb crusted salmon fill the air outside. While this cooking method develops a whole new dimension of flavor, depth and interest, it can also bring a few undesirable byproducts.  

Byproducts of grilled meat

There are two known compounds that form when meat is exposed to high temperatures and exposed flames. The compounds created are heterocyclic amine (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs), which is a pollutant.  A source of both is well-done beef, pork, fish and poultry, either pan fried or grilled.

PAHs are formed when juices drip onto the fire causing flames to shoot up and engulf the meat. These flames leave PAHs adhered to the meat .[i] They are also emitted from other toxic substances such as car exhaust and cigarette smoke. HCAs are formed when the amino acids, sugars and creatine in the meat react in high heat. 

Unfortunately, these chemicals are unavoidable to some extent when grilling and can lead to some unwanted side effects.

Link to cancer

HCA and PAH are benign compounds outside the body. However, when metabolized, they can wreak havoc on DNA and genes. Certain enzymes come into contact with the compounds and transform them into molecules that destroy DNA and lead to cancer.  In animal studies, grilled meat is consistently linked with tumors in most major organ systems in the body including breast, colon, liver, skin, lung and prostate. In human studies, cancer is linked most consistently with the colon, pancreas and prostate. 

While this is discouraging when it comes to a favorite warm-weather pastime, there are ways to vastly reduce your exposure to HCA and PAH.

Safer grilling methods

A few extra steps in your food prep can help. First, simply keep the meat moving.  Flip the meat every minute or so.[ii] This limits the meat’s time over flame before it gets turned, reducing the amount of carcinogens that can form.  The other method is to partially cook the meat before grilling to decrease total flame time. Half cook your chicken sausages or bake the pork tenderloin for a few minutes before searing on the grill.

Decreasing the risk, increasing the flavor

The good news is that some foods can reduce the risk of these carcinogens. Even better, some of them will make the meal more delicious!  To make grilling safer, marinate the meat, or mix in antioxidant rich foods. A few of the most studied foods to use are tart cherries,[iii] rosemary,[iv] garlic,[v] sage and lemon balm.  Try mixing sage and garlic into turkey burgers, tart cherries into hamburgers and marinate steaks in rosemary, garlic and lime juice.

These accompaniments decrease the enzymatic activation of HCAs and PAHs in the body and help to scavenge free radicals produced by the consumption of well-done meat.[vi] Plus, their flavors really go well with animal protein. 

Try my tasty recipe for HCA/PAH reduced salmon:

Balsamic, rosemary grilled salmon


  • 4 (4-ounce) salmon fillets
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced rosemary
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste


  1. Whisk vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, garlic, and rosemary together in a small bowl for marinade.
  2. Place salmon in a shallow dish and season with salt and pepper. Pour marinade over salmon fillets. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
  3. Preheat outdoor grill to medium-high heat.
  4. Remove salmon from marinade, and shake off excess. Discard remaining marinade. Cook on preheated grill until fish flakes easily with a fork, about four minutes per side.


Grilling can be a fun, fast, and creative way of cooking in the summer, but it is important to follow a few guidelines to reduce the production of carcinogens. One way is to reduce the cooking time of the meat. Either use pre-cooked meat or partially cooked meat on the grill — or, at the very least, keep flipping uncooked meat until it is done. Another tasty way to protect against HCAs and PAHs is to add in flavorful, antioxidant rich foods such as tart cherries in grass-fed beef burgers and balsamic / rosemary marinade on salmon, or sage and garlic on chicken breast.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


[i] National Cancer Institute (2011), “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk,” <>, accessed June 23, 2011.

[ii] Knize MG, Felton JS. Formation and human risk of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines formed from natural precursors in meat. Nutrition Reviews 2005; 63(5):158–165.

[iii] Wong, Cathy. “5 Ways to Reduce Carcinogens in Well-Done Meat,”> , accessed June 24th, 2011.

[iv] Balogh Z, Gray JI, Gomaa EA, Booren AM. Formation and inhibition of heterocyclic aromatic amines in fried ground beef patties. Food Chem Toxicol. 38.5 (2000):395-401

[v] Shin IS, Rodgers WJ, Gomaa EA, Strasburg GM, Gray JI. Inhibition of heterocyclic aromatic amine formation in fried ground beef patties by garlic and selected garlic-related sulfur compounds. J Food Prot. 2002 Nov;65(11):1766-70.

[vi] Platt KL, Edenharder R, Aderhold S, Muckel E, Glatt H. Fruits and vegetables protect against the genotoxicity of heterocyclic aromatic amines activated by human xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes expressed in immortal mammalian cells. Mutat Res. 2010 Dec 21;703(2):90-8.

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