Grilling Meats and an Increased Cancer Risk

Grilled meat is a big part of summer fun. Cookouts and barbecues serve hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, and chicken for the perfect weekend summer meal. 

Heterocyclic amines (HAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are carcinogens (substances that cause cancer) formed as part of the grilling process. This has caused controversy about whether grilled meat could cause cancer.

This article reviews why and when grilled meat may be a problem. It also covers what you can do to reduce the number of carcinogens in the meat you grill—so you can enjoy those summer barbecues without feeling guilty.

Meat grilling on a barbecue
Paul Salmon / EyeEm / Getty Images

Does Grilled Meat Cause Cancer?

Studies have found that eating grilled meat or chicken may increase your risk of developing cancer.

The problem comes down to carcinogens, cancer-causing substances which may be formed as part of the grilling process. The amino acids, sugars, and creatine in meats react at high temperatures forming heterocyclic amines.

Heterocyclic amines (HAs) are human carcinogens found on any meat cooked at high temperatures, whether on a grill or in a pan or under the broiler. The grilling is part of the problem, but the other is simply the heat. Pan-frying meats at high temperatures (over 300 F) also increases cancer risk.

A group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also linked to cancer. PAHs form when the meat juices drip onto the coals or other heating surfaces and flare up in flames and smoke. They stick to meat and are only found on grilled or smoked meat. 

HAs and PAHs are mutagenic—they cause changes in the DNA of cells in the laboratory that could lead to cells becoming cancerous. The most important factor in PAH production appears to be the incomplete combustion of fats that drip on the grill.

We don't have any direct studies on humans which show that HAs and PAHs cause cancer, but animal studies have found an increased risk of cancer in exposed animals. Population studies on people, in turn, have found an increased risk of some cancers in people who eat larger quantities of grilled and well-done meats.

While most studies have focused on grilled meat and the incidence of cancer, a 2017 study found that women with breast cancer had lower survival rates if they consumed greater amounts of grilled, barbecued, or smoked meats.

Reducing Carcinogens in Grilled Meat

Before canceling your barbecue and wallowing in sadness for a summer memory lost, there are several things you can do to reduce the carcinogens in barbecued meats—often substantially. Some of these include:

  • Marinate. Marinating meats for 20 minutes before grilling may reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines by up to 90 percent.
  • Cook at lower temperatures. Experts recommend that foods be cooked at lower temperatures, even though this means cooking them for longer.
  • Use a gas grill if possible. If you prefer using a charcoal grill, purchase a fire chimney (or make your own out of an old coffee can) to avoid using lighter fluid.
  • Manage the flames. Make sure the flames die down before putting meat on the grill.
  • Raise the grill rack. Raising the grill rack away from the heat on a gas grill may be helpful. You can also use indirect cooking techniques for meats on the grill, keeping the flames away from the food and using the grill as an oven.
  • Trim the fat. Trimming off any excess fat before grilling decreases the amount of PAHs formed.
  • Choose the right charcoal. While charcoal type doesn't seem to make a large difference with red meats, salmon which is grilled with coconut shell charcoal develops significantly fewer HAs and PAHs than salmon grilled with wood charcoal.

Limit Your Total Meat Intake

Many national health agencies recommend limiting your intake of red meats, whether grilled or cooked in any fashion. You may see recommendations about how many ounces you should eat, but this isn't really practical unless you weigh all the food you eat. Instead, there are a few simple rules to follow.

  • Limit portion size. Limit the meat on your plate to the size of a deck of cards or your fist.
  • Use skewers. Using skewers is also an excellent way to limit the amount of grilled meat consumed during a meal. Small pieces of meat and fresh fruits and vegetables on the grill make for an attractive and delicious meal.
  • Divide your plate into thirds. Meat products should take up one-third of your plate or less. Fill the other two-thirds with cancer-fighting foods such as cruciferous vegetables (high in glucosinolates) and green leafy vegetables. Ideal choices include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radishes, and cabbage.
  • Eat your veggies. Vegetables do not form carcinogens during the grilling process. So add all of the potatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, onions (rich in quercetin), mushrooms, and any other vegetables you enjoy, to the grill. Many people who don't particularly enjoy vegetables alone savor the taste of marinated and lightly seasoned grilled vegetables.
  • Don't forget the spices. Many people forget that the spices we add to our foods can pack a healthy anti-cancer punch. Better yet, grow some fresh basil, thyme, rosemary, and sage in a container on your deck next to your grill. Chop some of these spices to add to your grilled foods

Limit Processed Meats

As for the hot dogs, you may want to take a pass. We know that, of all meats, processed meats likely confer the most cancer risk.

Since you will already be limiting both the frequency and portion size of the meats you eat, it might be best to save those portions for cuts of non-processed meats you can genuinely savor, such as a good (but marinated) steak.


We know that high cooking temperatures and smoke put mutagenic chemicals into and onto the meat. Yet, there are several measures you can take to reduce the number of heterocyclic amines and other carcinogens in the meat you eat. These measures include marinating meat, cooking at lower temperatures, raising the grill rack, and more.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that just like everything in life, moderation is key. You still can enjoy grilled meats, but just do so in moderation and when cooked at low temperatures. That said, women who have had breast cancer may want to limit the amount of grilled, barbecued, and smoked meats they consume, even if they take the measures above to reduce carcinogens.

Finally, instead of thinking about only what you need to avoid, you may wish to reframe and think about the foods you can enjoy, which may instead reduce your risk of cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can eating too much grilled food cause cancer?

    Yes, there is an increased risk of cancer from eating an excessive amount of grilled meat. This is due to heterocyclic amines (HAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These substances are carcinogens (cause cancer) formed as part of the grilling process.

  • Is burnt food cancerous?

    Burnt food is not likely carcinogenic or a substance that causes cancer in humans. However, the research is limited and it has not been ruled out, so it’s best to limit consumption.

    The concern is a byproduct of burnt foods high in naturally occurring carbohydrates called acrylamide. The available research data notes there is probably not enough acrylamide in burnt foods to be considered carcinogenic.

  • Do grilled vegetables form carcinogens?

    No, grilled vegetables don't form carcinogens. Vegetables don't contain creatine, the protein which can be turned into heterocyclic amines, and do not have the juices meats do, which can drip onto coals.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed