Let Me See Your ‘Grill’: Barbecuing – For Better or For Worse?

It’s that time of year again!  The grills are coming out and the steaks, burgers, and brats are plentiful.  It’s enough to send any vegan off the deep end.  Unfortunately, as it seems with all good things, grilling comes with a serious health risk – cancer.  How can something as innocent as chowing on a freshly grilled, grassfed rib-eye be a health hazard?  Rest assured, the meat is NOT to blame!!

Grilling creates two types of potentially cancer causing agents; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).  PAHs are a product of the smoke that is generated from the meat’s fat drippings.  The smoke surrounds the food and the PAHs are transferred from the smoke to the surface of the meat.   HCAs are formed when meats are grilled at high temperatures for a long time.  Studies have demonstrated a link between HCAs and the development of breast, colon, stomach and prostate tumors.  Yes Arnold, “It’s a tumor.”

I know exactly what you’re thinking… EVERYTHING causes cancer these days, right?  And there’s just a bunch of “fun-haters” that have set out to make you miserable and ruin your lives by taking away all things pleasurable.  Yep, exactly…

I joke!  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to abandon the barbecue and your summer fun!  There are several ways to reduce the risks associated with grilling and still enjoy the flavor.  Here’s what you can do to make your summer grilling safer:

  • Marinate!  Not only does marinating tenderize and add flavor to meats; but it also helps blunt heat. This decreases the number of HCAs formed during cooking.  Additionally, including herbs like rosemary and thyme in your ‘special sauce’ can further reduce HCA formation.
  • Nuke it!  Pre-cook your meat in the microwave for 1-2 minutes before putting it on the grill.  Microwaving releases some of the compounds that contribute to HCA formation.  Additionally, starting the cooking process reduces the grilling time.
  • Make it Rare!  Avoiding well done meats is another way to decrease risk of exposure to harmful HCAs and PAHs.  Less time on the grill means less smoke exposure and shorter grill time!
  • Accessorize!  Serve your meat with plenty of cruciferous vegetables.  Nutrient rich broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, etc, contain special nutrients that alter the way the body metabolizes some of the chemicals produced during grilling.
  • Save grilling for special occasions or weekends.  Use alternate cooking methods such as roasting, braising, pressure cooking, sous vide, stir frying, stewing, boiling, poaching, using the crock pot or baking a majority of the time to help limit exposure.
  • Don’t burn it!  Although a little char on a sausage or brat may be something you enjoy, it’s not optimal for your health.  Invest in a meat thermometer and remember this rule – “When it’s heated through it’s ready to chew!”  (Pretty clever, huh?)
  • You’re grilling what???   Organ meats, such as liver, heart and kidneys, when grilled form lower levels of HCA’s than the usual BBQ fare of steaks, brats and burgers.  Surprise your backyard party guests by grilling up a nice lobe of liver if you’re feeling ‘gutsy’.

Here’s a handy chart to help guide your grilling and meat cooking adventures:


USDA Guidelines (F)**

Restaurant Quality (F)**

Steak-Beef, Bison, Game, Lamb












Pork (Chops, Loin)









Pork (Ribs, Shoulder)






Poultry (Whole bird/Parts)



Poultry (Ground)



Ground Meats (all other)



Fish (Steaks, Filets, Whole)



Fish (Tuna, Swordfish, Marlin)






**USDA guidelines are valuable food safety targets.  Best if you are using low quality meats or meats from an unknown source (supermarket/Walmart).**

**Restaurant guidelines often result in better finished quality and less chance of meats being overdone.  If following these guidelines safe food handling is MANDATORY to prevent Food Borne Illness.**

The coals are hot and the meat is marinating.  Put on your apron on, grab the tongs and ‘get your grill on’.    Summer is short – not enjoying it would be a ‘missed-steak’!




Categories: Cooking, Paleo Diet Basics, Paleo/Low Carb


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

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  1. Mike says

    If I keep reading the Internet I’m going to read myself into a corner, with nothing left edible or non-carcinogenic. I barbecue a lot of my meals, include lunch many days working from home. Fish should be safe wrapped in foil I think, and I do try not to char the meat. Marinade I’m unsure of; I know I have a hard time with marinated chicken drumsticks trying to avoid having them bellow smoke and char.

    • Amy Kubal says

      Just be sane about all of this – do your best, bottom line – don’t eat ‘burnt’ meats, use a variety of other cooking methods – not just the grill and ENJOY!!!

  2. Marty says

    I understand where you’re coming from, but it’s going to raise an eyebrow to suggest microwaving is a way to mitigate the harm from using the oldest cooking technology, fire. I have to imagine we’re much better adapted to handle barbecued food than whatever-the-heck microwaves do.

  3. Mark says

    Wouldn’t Paleo man’s primary source of protein come from meats cooked over an open flame? Similar to BBQ? If so is it really that dangerous?

  4. John Harris says

    Grilling at a lower heat or indirect heat is my preferred method. I don’t consider “Nuking it” a valid option.

  5. John says

    ” HCAs are formed when meats are grilled at high temperatures for a long time. ”

    What if you don’t grill at a high temp? When I grill steaks I usually put my grill at the lowest setting , the built in thermometer usually shows that as around 350F. I would think this is lower heat than if I stir-fried.

  6. ron says

    Can you site some research that shows evidence of these compounds pass through the gut and cause harm? I am suspicious that 2 million years of adaptation to eating meat cooked with fire is bad for us.

      • Grilling Enthusiast says

        Amy, I have a hard time squaring this grilling/cancer thing with the fact that humans have been cooking over fire for hundreds of thousands of years. Does anyone have any insights as to the cooking methods of Paleo man? I would think that if a bunch of people had been waiting for days for a hunting party to come back with meat, then they wouldn’t take the time to throw the beast into a slow cooker. I think they would want to grill it up as fast as they could–and I believe that would include eating lots of burnt edges (which incidentally taste pretty good).

        On a side note I would recommend the book “How Cooking Made Us Human.” Everyone should have a copy on their Paleo bookshelf.

  7. David says

    Is direct flame the only way to generate the harmful chemicals? My thinking here is that BBQ (as opposed to grilling) with its offset heat and lower temps (you’re essentially baking at ~225 deg) might be safer? There is still quite a bit of smoke, but that is from wood burning as opposed to meat dripping onto hot coals. Thanks for the great post!

  8. says

    I’m curious as to gas vs charcoal, smoking vs indirect grilling, formed charcoal vs natural wood chunk charcoal, oh! There are so many factors to consider! I would think low & slow with a smoker (no charring and no burning of fat) would be AOK assuming additive-free charcoal & woodchips. Any additional info?

    • Amy Kubal says

      Indirect heat is going to be better than a direct flame for sure. It’s the direct heat and high temp exposure that are the biggest factors in HCA formation – even broiling forms HCA’s. As far as charcoal type or wood chips etc, there is not a great deal of variation here. But slow and low is definitely preferable to fast, high heat and charred.

  9. GB says

    Grill rare and marinate if you can stand it. Veggies I eat anyway. Smoke it.

    This one touched a few sacred nerves…

    • Amy Kubal says

      I LOVE Sashimi and beef tartar ain’t too shabby – but you better be damn sure your meat is high quality and practice safe food handling. There’s always a risk!

  10. Dineen says

    People are reacting heavily to your suggestion to microwaving. Pre-cooking, especially parboiling has been a common way to reduce grilling time, especially on some larger, fattier or even tougher cuts of meat. You said, “Microwaving releases some of the compounds that contribute to HCA formation.” I’d like to clarify– is it really microwaves that release the compounds that lead to HCA formation during grilling or any pre-cooking?

  11. Dustin Roswell says

    I’d like to know about smoking meat as well. The fat drippings from the meat do not get to the coals, they usually end up in a drip pan below the meat.

  12. JS says

    One issue I have with this is that you don’t talk about the relative statistical risk of eating grilled meat compared to other “risky” things we do by just waking up in the morning and going about our daily lives. How does eating charred meat rank with, say, getting in your car every day to drive to work, in terms of probable death or serious injury/illness? Or, eating rare steak and getting food poisoning? I frankly take anything that says X increases your chance of Y so you should avoid X with a huge grain of salt unless the probability of Y is high enough. Just saying. I’m not sure this is worth our concern, but maybe it is. Don’t have time to read the study, so it would be helpful if you provided more information.

    • Amy Kubal says

      Meat comes with the greatest risk but grilling veggies and meat at the same time will result in the same smoke formation so that factor may still be in play. Again, with all of this – it’s solely for your information and enjoyment in life is also important so don’t give up the good stuff completely. Just be aware.

  13. Janeway says

    Is the risk of formation of HCA’s the same with pan frying meat? I frequently cook grass-fed beef patties in a skillet with coconut oil. My preference is to cook to medium-rare/medium – still pink but not bloody. Should I be going more rare than that? And how about bacon? Is there an optimal doneness that cooks pork thoroughly enough while still not increasing the HCA risk?

    • Amy Kubal says

      It’s just information for you. I am definitely not saying give up the grill! But provided info and ways to make it as safe as possible. I still eat a nice grilled steak once and a while too! Life should be enjoyed sometimes! :-)

  14. Kevin Carvell says

    I think I’d rather take my chances with the PAHs and HCA than destroy all nutrition in my meat by using a microwave and the many other cell deforming reactions to your food and ones self from using this contraption. Broiling or baking is best for partial cooking.
    Kevin, Dubai.

  15. Walter says

    From the Cancer.gov website linked in the comments:

    “Population studies have not established a definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure from cooked meats and cancer in humans.” And “Researchers found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal (14), pancreatic (15, 16), and prostate (17, 18) cancer.”

    So don’t fear the grill! Cook it rare and remember that the increased risk of cancer from rare meat is too small to measure in any given population.

  16. Brigitta says

    I’m going to grill as much as I want, and if I get cancer or drop dead, so be it! I don’t smoke, drink, do recreational drugs so I guess barbecuing will be my vice.

  17. jacqueline says

    “Nuke it” The phrase alone should indicate that the microwave is ANYTHING but a safe, quick way to “cook” food. I still can’t believe microwaves have not been banned — they are extremely toxic to food and to humans. I say if you’re going Paleo in food, go more Paleo in cooking methods — get rid of the microwave!!!!

  18. Casey says

    Or you could grill using indirect heat. It’s my preferred method as it cut down the chances of scorching your foods.

  19. Rich says

    Aren’t these studies just more terrible observational, epidemiological works that only prove correlation and don’t control for factors like sugar intake, lifestyle, high refined carb intake, etc all of which cause cancer too?

    Of course people who eat fried meats and BBQ are more likely to get cancer. As a group they’re also doing all the other bad stuff, too.

    I thought Robb thoroughly condemned these kinds of studies?

    • says

      Difference here is we have decent lab studies showing this trend to be accurate. Easy solution however: marinade your meat in olive oil. Drops carcinogen production incredibly.

      • Rich says

        I see. Thanks for replying and clarifying, Robb. I appreciate it.

        As someone living in asia and trying to get my protein in I tend to eat alot of BBQ and grilled meats… I’m trying to mitigate it with dark chocolate, green tea and cruciferous veggies with those meals. Hopefully that will soak up the nasties!

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