Peer Review Status: Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, Cancer Information Service
First Published: June 2000
Last Revised: May 2003
The special flavor of food cooked on an outdoor grill is a summertime
treat many of us enjoy. Grilling may raise the risk of cancer, but
following a few guidelines for safer grilling can reduce that
Scientists have identified two potential carcinogens or
cancer-causing substances produced during grilling.
- Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when fat
from food drips onto hot coals. The smoke that is created rises up
and deposits PAHs on the surface of the food. When eaten, the PAHs
can alter the genetic material of cells.
- Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs) are produced when the heat
of flame cooking causes creatine, a compound in muscle meats, to
react with amino acids. The longer food stays on the grill, the
more HAAs are formed. When eaten, HAAs may increase cancer
By taking a few precautions, you can minimize the cancer risk and
still enjoy cookouts. The American Institute for Cancer Research and
the National Cancer Institute recommend the following tips for safer
Reduce Fat Drippings
- Select low-fat cuts of meat.
- Trim away excess fat and remove poultry skin.
- Marinate meat (for as little as 40 minutes) before grilling
giving the surface a higher acidity, which inhibits the
formation of HAAs.
- Use tongs instead of a fork to turn meat. Piercing the meat
with a fork can release juices and fat that can cause flame
Reduce Grilling Time
- Partly pre-cook meat in the stove or microwave to reduce
the grilling time.
- Do not char or overcook foods. Don't eat any portion of the
meat that is charred.
- Keep flames from touching the meat directly.
Reduce Smoke Contact
- If you use charcoal, buy products made from hardwood
because soft woods burn at higher temperatures.
- Cover the grill rack with hole-punched aluminum foil or
wrap the food in foil.
- Use a drip pan, making sure it does not rest on the
- Dampen coals that become too hot or flare-up.
- Cook food at least six inches above the burning coals.