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Does Your Favorite Summer Meal Come with a Health Risk?

Longer, warmer days mean more opportunities for outdoor dining and for some of us that means an opportunity to dust off the grill.

We don’t want to put a damper on your summer plans by telling you that grilled foods may come with a health risk, so we asked Karen Collins, registered dietitian and advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research to answer a few of our burning questions about grilling and potential health risks. 

Karen Collins Ms Rdn Cdn Fand

FLIK: We’ve heard there are risks associated with grilled foods, can you tell us what those risks are?

Karen: To reduce cancer risk when it comes to grilling season, evidence is much stronger about the importance of what you’re grilling (and including in the rest of the meal) than the effects of compounds formed in grilling. But research does show that grilling meat, red or white, at high temperatures can lead to two types of potentially cancer-causing substances. Some compounds form due to a reaction with high heat, others due to exposure to smoke.

FLIK: So it sounds like there are concerns when it comes to grilling meat, but what about grilling fruits and vegetables?

Karen: We have no evidence that grilling fruits or vegetables poses concern. One group of compounds (HCAs – more on this below) can only form in muscle, so they are clearly not a concern for fruits and vegetables. Technically, grilling fruits and vegetables could expose them to smoke, and thus potential for PAH exposure (FLIK: see below). But generally, without the fat drippings that are an important source of smoke when grilling, grilling fruits and vegetables probably means fewer PAHs. It’s theoretically possible, of course, but I have never seen any discussion of this as a significant concern.

FLIK: Tell us more about compounds – HCAs and PAHs – what do we need to know?

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are a family of compounds that form in meat (regardless of whether it’s beef, pork, poultry or fish) when long or intense heat (such as grilling or frying) reacts with the animal protein. (High heat causes a reaction of creatine or creatinine, amino acids and sugars that creates HCAs.)

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form in smoke, and as smoke rises, these compounds can adhere to the meat.

An example of these compounds is benzo(a)pyrene (B(a)P). People are exposed to PAHs such as benzopyrene from tobacco smoke (as smokers or through second-hand smoke), through occupational exposure in coal- or tar-based work, and through air pollution.  For people who don’t smoke or work in jobs with occupational exposure, their diet can be a large portion of their exposure to PAHs.

Studies in rodents and monkeys, and laboratory studies using human cells -- have shown that HCAs and PAHs can cause changes in DNA, and this could increase the risk of cancer. (These compounds are mutagenic and carcinogenic.) Some studies that followed large groups of people over time have found that those who consumed more HCAs or PAHs were more likely to develop colorectal cancer or colorectal adenomas (a type of benign polyp that is the origin of most colorectal cancer). There are inconsistencies in these studies, however, and results are even less consistent in studies of whether HCA and PAH consumption is associated with risk of other cancers.

FLIK: Are there other cooking methods that may have the same impact as grilling when it comes to these harmful chemicals?

Karen: People often ask me whether grill by gas or charcoal makes a difference, but there’s no evidence of that. The risk relates to the heat exposure and the smoke.

Frying is another high-temperature cooking method that can also result in HCA production in meat. And meat that is smoked (such as smoked sausage or bacon) is another way that it is exposed to PAHs.

FLIK: What are some steps someone can take to prevent the formation of potentially harmful compounds while grilling?


  • Marinate meat or poultry for 30 minutes or more before grilling. It doesn’t only add flavor – some studies have found that it can reduces formation of HCA compounds by 57 to over 90%.
  • Reduce grill temperature from high to medium or medium-high. You’ll add just two minutes to cooking time, but reduce HCAs substantially.
  • Cook enough to reach a safe temperature, but avoid charring meat and make it less well-done. Well-done meat and meat that is heavily browned is generally higher in HCAs than meat cooked to medium doneness.
  • Choose poultry, fish and limited amounts of lean meat – lean choices mean fewer drippings, and less smoke means less formation of PAH compounds. And grilling is not the only thing about meat that is a concern for cancer risk. Evidence is even clearer that limiting red meat (beef, lamb and pork) to no more than 12 to 18 ounces per week, and minimizing processed meats (such as hot dogs and sausage), is a smart choice to reduce risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Bigger picture ways to reduce risk: Make grilled meat a smaller proportion of the meal. Make kabobs, which feature less meat and more vegetables. Grill some vegetables or fruits, and include pulses (dried beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils) in salads and side dishes with whole grains or vegetables to provide part of the protein for the meal. Smaller portions of grilled meat means you’ve reduced your exposure to the compounds of concern. I share tips on the big picture of making summer barbecues healthy on my blog here.

FLIK: As we go into the summer season, what is the most important message to take away from this conversation?

Karen: It’s great news that everyday choices about what we eat and drink, and how much we move or stay sedentary, can add up to reduce our risk of cancer. Headline hype can draw our attention to a single choice, but the key to lower cancer risk lies in the whole package of choices we make. When it comes to our eating habits, it means eating more of the foods that offer a variety of potential protective nutrients and compounds – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (like dried beans and lentils), nuts and seeds – and less of foods that can pose risk – red and processed meats, alcohol, and foods so concentrated in calories that they lead to weight gain that puts us at risk. The bottom-line is aiming for more plant-focused eating habits, and I share insights in my blog post here, since there’s a lot of confusion about what that does and doesn’t mean.

The 2018 landmark report from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is considered the gold standard of a review and analysis of all today’s most solid evidence. Use the 10 AICR recommendations as the blueprint to set priorities among strategies for lower cancer risk.

Karen is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in reducing cancer risk and promoting heart health. She has served in a consultant capacity as Nutrition Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) for over 30 years. Karen was recently awarded the AICR Distinguished Service Award, citing unparalleled expertise in translating nutrition research, providing evidence-based advice, and empowering audiences to put complex information into perspective. You can find her “Taking Nutrition from Daunting to Doable” TM on her Smart Bytes® blog and on social media @KarenCollinsRD.


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