Medicine or Malarkey: Can Grilling Your Food Be Bad for Your Health?

health hazards of grilling out

Getting those grills out for easy summer cooking can be a refreshing break from indoor dinner prep. Freshly cooked and prepared food is often recommended as a healthy alternative to meals containing heavily processed ingredients. However, there may be hidden dangers to grilled and barbecued foods. Learn more about the potential health consequences of grilling in the summertime and possible cooking alternatives to stay as healthy as possible!

Grilling: What's the Worry?

Almost everyone associates backyard barbecuing, grilled burgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob and slices of succulent watermelon with summer. Most of us have a childhood memory associated with grilling out. People grill burgers, drumsticks or other meats during tailgates, beach days and more. However, research has shown that there may be some potential health risks to eating grilled meats. In some cases, researchers found that frequent, heightened consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. What causes that risk?

During exposure to high temperatures, certain chemicals (known as HCAs and PAHs) are formed in meat that pose a health risk in the long term. Some research shows the charred parts of meats pose a threat, as well as smoke from juice and fat dripping into a heat source. Exposure to smoke and charr creates carcinogens which may increase one’s risk of developing cancer. If you have a family history of cancer or just want to reduce your risk, you can learn to grill in healthier ways (check some out below!) or simply choose other methods for cooking favorite summer meals.

While these studies are cause for concern, it’s also relevant to note that the levels of chemicals exposed to mice in trials were a much higher concentration than the levels found in our food. Additionally, everyone’s metabolic process is different when it comes to breaking down food and nutrients. However, reducing your exposure to grilled and charred foods this summer is a great way to eat healthier and err on the safe side.

Healthier Options for Easy Summer Meals

So do you have to stop grilling your favorite proteins altogether to reduce your risk? Not necessarily -- there are ways to reduce known levels of carcinogens in cooked meats without eliminating grilling completely. Try these summer grilling tips:

  • Avoid cooking food for a long time over an open flame;
  • Pre-cooking meat partially in an oven or other device before grilling;
  • Flip meat often and avoid consuming any parts of the meat that appear charred; and
  • Slice meats thinly before cooking -- this can make for faster grilling and also make it harder for carcinogens to form.

Grilling corn, meats and other veggies over an open flame is still possible. If you marinate foods in a mixture containing acidic juices, that can reduce the formation of cancer-causing chemicals. Look for summer grilling recipes that include marinades with citrus juice, vinegar, beer, or wine. The addition of herbs and seasonings like rosemary, thyme, basil and garlic can also help reduce your risk by forming a barrier against charring on the meat.

Eat Well This Summer

Thankfully, you can still grill outdoors and pass along favorite summertime recipes. With just a few tweaks, many recipes can be cooked on a grill -- or partly on the stove -- and then finished on the grill. There are many healthy summer recipes for tasty meals and snacks, plus many more cooking techniques to explore. Speak with a CareSpot healthcare professional to learn more about preventative screening, blood work and urgent care services in your area.