Backyard barbecues are as iconically American as apple pie and baseball. Grilling is a popular cooking method during the summer months, and many people will be firing up the grill for Labor Day. This month’s article is intended to have a preventative impact on your health and still enjoy a great summer barbecue.

Numerous studies demonstrate that the process of grilling meat increases exposure to certain chemical substances which have a negative impact on health. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are two chemical compounds produced by grilling meat. These compounds have a mutagenic effect; this means that they can cause changes to your DNA and increase your risks for cancer. Numerous studies have linked consumption of HCAs and PAHs in grilled meat to increased risk for colorectal, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers. A person’s risk for cancer is largely influenced by their body’s detoxification pathways functioning optimally, and both HCAs and PAHs are largely cleared by the liver.

Cooking temperature influences the formation of HCAs. The process of cooking meat at high temperatures such as grilling meat directly over an open flame causes the production of HCAs. Other high cooking methods such as pan frying or broiling can also contribute to the formation of HCAs. HCAs are formed in the meat by a reaction between the amino acids, the building block of proteins, and substances in the muscle fiber (creatinine and sugar) caused by exposure to high heat. Poaching, as well as baking, and roasting at temperature of less than 400 degrees have demonstrated decreased formation of HCAs.

The longer the meat is cooked, the higher the content of HCAs. This means, the crispy blackened areas on the meat have higher concentrations of HCAs. The good news is that HCAs are not found in significant amounts in other foods beside meats cooked at high temperatures, so make sure to throw some veggies on the grill too: summer squashes, onions, peppers, mushrooms and even broccoli go well on the grill.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are produced when juices and fats from meat drip on to flames, hot coals or hot metal surface on which they are being cooked and produce flames or smoke. The flames and smoke cause the PAHs to adhere to the surface of the meat. Exposure to PAHs also comes from smoked meats, car exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke.

Numerous studies have looked at the effects of adding foods high in antioxidants (substances that fight cellular damage) such as fruits, herbs, and spices either applied directly to the meats or by soaking in marinates. Incorporation of these rich antioxidant sources such as cherries, ginger, rosemary, garlic, thyme and turmeric into meats prior to grilling decrease the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Marinades containing wine and beer also demonstrated this effect. One study looked at different types of beers and compared their abilities to reduce PAHs in pork corked on a charcoal grill and compared it to the levels found in pork not soaked in the marinade. Brown beer was found to have the biggest impact it and reduced levels by 68%. Another study using a mixture of ginger, thyme, garlic, rosemary and chili pepper and red wine reduced HCAs by 74%.

Don’t dismay, grill the health way:

•Trim fat off meats prior to grilling and pick leaner cuts.

•Cook at lower temperatures 350-400 and don’t let flames directly contact the food.

•Don’t overcook meats.

•Turn meat frequently during cooking.

nAvoid pressing down on the meat with a spatula.

•Grill the meat in smaller pieces for less cooking time.

•Use a natural charcoal and skip the lighter fluid.

•Clean the grill regularly to prevent buildup of PAHs.

•Skip high sugar sauces which generate more HCAs.

•Add herbs, spices and fruit to your meat through marinates and rubs, or directly mixing into ground meats.

•Do not forget to pair meat with vegetables.

Talking to your doctor about improving your body’s detoxification pathways and protecting your DNA from damage can help lower your risks for cancer and chronic disease.

Dr. Stacie Wells, ND, FAAEM is a Naturopathic Doctor & Fellow of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. She practices at the Northwest Center for Optimal Health in  Marysville, WA. Contact her at 360-651-9355 or

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