Nothing says innocent summer fun like throwing some meat on the grill and enjoying it al fresco with friends and family. The only thing is, grilling isn’t actually so innocent after all. Yep, like that annoying mosquito that keeps landing on your fruit salad, we’re here to put a damper on your next summer barbecue with some news about the serious health risks of grilling. But unlike that annoying mosquito, we’re going to make things better for you in the end. We’re here to ask the tough question — is grilling healthy? — get to the bottom of the health risks and concerns, and give you some actionable safe grilling tips.
With our safe grilling guide, you can protect your health while still enjoying all the fun and deliciousness of grilling season.
So What Gives: Is Grilling Healthy or Not?
Especially with the rise of low-carb, high-protein diets, like keto and paleo, it can be easy to think that a meat-centric cooking method like grilling is the healthiest choice. But the fact of the matter is, grilling poses several concerning health risks. Let’s look at them one by one.
Grilling Risk 1: Heat + Meat = Dangerous Chemical Combination
The primary health issue with grilling has to do with chemical compounds that grilling releases into your body. Here’s the basic gist: when meat is cooked at high temperatures (like grilling), it causes chemical reactions that release toxins into the air, onto the food, and, ultimately, into our bodies. The three major chemical compounds produced during grilling are:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): These are formed when fat drips down onto the hot coals or grill element below. From there, they rise up through smoke and flame-ups and deposit themselves back on the food.
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): When cooked over high heat for long enough, compounds inside meat, chicken, and fish form HCAs, which have been linked to breast, colon, and prostate cancer in lab studies of rats.
- Advanced glycation end products (AGEs): AGEs are formed from a chemical reaction that occurs between fat and protein when meat is cooked over high heat. They’ve been shown to contribute to inflammation, which is linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The effects of these carcinogens is real: one study showed that postmenopausal women who ate a lot of grilled meats had a 47% greater risk of breast cancer than those who ate the least meat. That’s a HUGE increase in risk! All of these things make the challenge of healthy grilling even greater.
Grilling Risk 2: Too Much Aluminum Exposure
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the chemicals. There’s also the issue of aluminum, which a lot of people use to line their grills or cook certain items, such as fish or vegetables. In your everyday environment, aluminum is everywhere, as it naturally occurs in soil, water, and air. But in these contexts, it’s not a big deal — your body knows how to handle these small amounts, and can process them efficiently.
But when you cook with aluminum, the heat causes significantly more of the metal to leach into your foods, raising the aluminum content to a level above the World Health Organization’s acceptable daily limit. The effect is even greater when cooking acidic foods (ever grilled acidic produce, like tomatoes or peaches? Or grilled a lemon to squeeze over your fish?), spices (who doesn’t like a little kick in the chicken marinade or burger meat?), and salts (I mean…c’mon). This is all to say that, if you’re grilling with aluminum, it’s probably not safe grilling. Just put food straight on the grill, or use a stainless steel grill basket.
Grilling Risk 3: Blood Pressure Concerns
A lot of people who want to lower their blood pressure or cholesterol might think that grilling offers a healthy alternative to more fat-laden cooking techniques, like frying or sautéeing in oil. In a lot of ways, it does; but unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.
Recent research shows that grilling over high heat can cause an increase in blood pressure, which can lead to some serious cardiovascular issues, including a heart attack. In the study, researchers analyzed the frequent cooking methods and blood pressure of over 90,000 adults (86,777 women and 17,104 men) over the course of 12 to 16 years — that’s a really large study, so it’s one to be taken quite seriously. While none of the participants had high blood pressure or hypertension, when they enrolled in the study, almost 40,000 had developed it by the end of the follow-up period.
Among those who ate animal protein (fish, chicken, or red meat) on a regular basis, the risk of developing hypertension broke down like this:
- 17% higher in those who grilled the protein more than 15 times per month, as compared to 4 times per month
- 15% higher for those who preferred their meat well-done versus those who like rarer meat
- 17% higher in those who were estimated to have eaten the highest levels of heterocyclic aromatic amines, which are the chemicals formed when meat is charred or exposed to high temperatures, as compared to those who consumed the lowest levels
As Gang Liu, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said: “Our findings imply that avoiding the use of open-flame and/or high-temperature cooking methods may help reduce hypertension risk among individuals who consume red meat, chicken, or fish regularly.”
Safe Grilling Techniques to Reduce Your Health Risks
Don’t despair! All of this info doesn’t mean that you need to resign yourself to sitting there hungry at your next barbecue. The health risks of grilling are very real, but fortunately, safe grilling is definitely possible. All it takes is implementing a few healthy grilling practices next time you head to the barbecue — they will make your food (and you and your loved ones!) healthier, without sacrificing any of the taste or fun.
WellBe’s Top 6 Tips for Healthy Grilling
Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to buy any fancy equipment or sacrifice your favorite dishes. All of our healthy grilling tips are simple and free, and will seriously cut down the health risks of your grilled food. Here ya go:
1. Choose fruits and veggies. The easiest way to avoid the carcinogenic effects of grilled meat is by not eating meat. And with the abundance of summer produce, there are tons of delicious fruits and vegetables to throw on the grill: try pineapple, peaches, asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, even grilled salad greens (seriously, grilled lettuce might sound insane but it’s actually SO GOOD). Bonus: grill broccoli, since cruciferous vegetables can change the way the body metabolizes the chemicals caused by grilling. Just remember to put ‘em straight on the grill, or use a stainless steel grill basket, rather than wrapping them in aluminum — especially if you’re opting for acidic produce, like tomatoes or citrus.
2. Marinate, marinate, marinate. Good news: the best way to give your meat some more flavor might also be the most effective way to make it safer. One study tested three different marinades and found that all caused a significant reduction in the total HCA content of the meat (the Caribbean marinade had an 88% decrease, the herb marinade a 72% decrease, and the Southwest marinade a 57% decrease). Based on these findings, the study authors feel comfortable suggesting that commonly available, spice-containing marinades can effectively inhibit HCA formation. A tip sheet from Purdue University suggests using marinades that contain antioxidants (look for ingredients like vinegar, citrus, herbs, spices, and olive oils) that will help inhibit the formation of carcinogens on grilled meat. Fortunately, these things are all easy to find and packed with flavor, so whether you’re making your own marinade or picking one up at the store, you won’t have a hard time getting it right.
3. Go rare(er). The less time meat is exposed to high heat, the less time it’ll have to develop any harmful chemicals. If you do get a more well-done piece of meat, cut off any charred pieces. And if you’re having a hard time saying goodbye to that blackened catfish or charred burger, just remember that those pieces have incredibly high levels of HCA’s (the chemical compounds that cause high blood pressure and, y’know, cancer).
4. Trim the fat. Because fat drippings are a major source of PAHs, reducing the amount of fat on a cut of meat will make a big difference. Skinning your chicken, trimming the fat from your steak, and choosing leaner cuts of meat help minimize your risk. Remember, if you’re going to trim fat or take off the skin, you need to do this before you grill, since the dangerous compounds are formed during the cooking process as fat drips down onto the heating element and forms the PAH, which then rises back up onto the food in the smoke.
5. Keep it clean. Clean your grill before each use to make sure you’re not grilling over old fat drippings or picking up leftover pieces of char. If you skip this step, all of your other efforts at healthy grilling could be thwarted by a previous grilling session when you didn’t know what precautions to take (and if you’re using someone else’s grill, they’re bound to leap at the chance to have someone else give it a quick cleaning for them!). Just remember that how you clean matters, too: be sure to use a non-wire brush to clean up so you don’t end up with leftover tiny fragments of metal bristles in the grill that could then get into your food! We like this one.
6. Ditch the foil. As we mentioned before, aluminum foil is an issue, so put things right on the grill or use a grilling pan or basket or skewers. One other option is using a cast-iron skillet — when cooking acidic foods, cast-iron may even give you a bonus mineral boost of iron, not to mention all the extra flavor that comes from using well-seasoned skillet (unless you know you have issues processing iron or have excess iron, then stick with the methods we already listed). You’ve got a lot of options here, so it shouldn’t be hard to keep aluminum foil off the grill.
The WellBe Takeaway: The Final Word on Healthy Grilling
Summer is a time to chill out and enjoy the weather, food, and fun times, NOT to keep a whole bunch of studies and recommendations in your head. So we’ll make it easy for you by breaking all of the above down into a few key things to remember: grilling causes animal protein (fish, poultry, and red meat) to form chemicals that can pose serious health risks, like cancer and high blood pressure. Even grilled fruits and veggies can form dangerous compounds if you grill using aluminum foil or eat them charred. But you can still enjoy summer barbecues by following our six simple healthy grilling guidelines:
- Grill low-acid fruits and vegetables instead of meat
- If you do choose to grill meat, make sure to marinate it before grilling
- Choose rare (but not too rare!) over well-done pieces of meat
- Trim the fatty parts of meat before cooking (including taking off the skin if it’s poultry)
- Make sure your grill is clean before using
- Don’t grill with aluminum foil
What’s your favorite healthy thing to throw on the grill? Let us know in the comments below!
- Knize MG, et al. Factors affecting human heterocyclic amine intake and the metabolism of PhIP. Mutat Res. 2002 Sep 30;506-507:153-62.
- Uribarri J, et al. Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Jun;110(6):911-16.e12.
- Steck SE, et al. Cooked meat and risk of breast cancer–lifetime versus recent dietary intake. Epidemiology. 2007 May;18(3):373-82.