Lower Grilling Carcinogens by 99 Percent

May 18, 2018
grilling carcinogens - dr. axe
The topic of grilling carcinogens is probably the last thing you want to focus on while heading up for a summer cookout, especially with Memorial Day weekend coming up. The truth is when we’re playing softball, enjoying a family picnic or watching fireworks, there’s a good chance you’re in front of a grill firing up some hot dogs, burgers, shrimp, ribs or even veggie kabobs. Normally, we just write off this time as a once-per-year gorge fest, turning a blind eye to any health concerns as well. I’m not saying that your burger and bratwurst bonanza can’t pack on pounds and clog your arteries, but the good news is that Fourth of July cookouts don’t have to be bad for you in other aspects, such increasing your risk of cancer. With just a few simple steps, you can not only avoid grilling mistakes and drastically lower the amount of grilling carcinogens hiding out in your meals, but you can make them taste much better, too.

Background on Grilling Carcinogens

All meats have amino acids, such as creatine, and sugars. If you grill them at very high temperatures, though, those substances naturally produce molecules called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), toxic compounds also found in cigarette smoke. We’ve known about these cancer-causing agents for 15 years now.

We can’t change the fact that meat is composed of amino acids and sugars. It is what it is. We also can’t change the fact that meat can form chemicals that are really, really bad for you. What we can control is the total amount of HCAs we eat. The easiest way to do this is to control how well-done you take your meat and what kind of meat you eat.

  • Well-done meat contains 3.5 times more HCA than medium-rare meat.
  • When you compare different types of meats, sadly (and tragically), the highest concentration comes from bacon. The second highest is from fried pork, followed by beef and then chicken. (This particular study didn’t look at fish.) (1)

Where the Burn Is Best

This is great news for people who veg out at the grill. Feel free to singe away and flame it up. Plants don’t have the combination of creatine and sugar found in meats, nor do they have the fat drippings that smoke up into the other grilling-induced carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Grilled pineapple is fabulous with a bit of sesame oil over it. We grill apricots and peaches in exactly the same way, and they’re luscious.

But What If You’re a Meat-o-Phile?

Sure, you want to be healthy but … bacon. Yes, you want to consume fewer carcinogens but … ribs. And you’d love to go all lean and green but … salmon.

The good news is cutting back on your carcinogens doesn’t mean you have to cut back on flavor, meat or even grilled meat. Below are some simple and tasty suggestions to help you minimize your exposure to cancer-causing compounds before, during and after you grill.

Reduce Grilling Carcinogens: Pre-Grill

The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that a teriyaki marinade reduced HCAs by 67 percent. A turmeric-garlic sauce reduced them by 50 percent. The key here is to use a thin, vinegar-based sauce, sans sugar.

Compare that to a thick, concentrated commercial barbecue sauce with additive sugars, which can actually triple the number of HCAs in meat.

The researchers performed experiments to find out how herbs and spices can lead to HCA reduction in meats. Basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano and thyme possessed powerful anticancer action in grilled meats. Most of these herbs are rich in three compounds — carnosic acid, carnosol and rosmarinic acid — all of which are potent antioxidants. (2)

So be sure to include these tasty, cancer-fighting herbs in your marinade.

Reduce Grilling Carcinogens: Mid-Grill

You have many settings on your barbecue, but don’t opt for the blowtorch approach when it comes to grilling meat. To avoid creating carcinogens, start on a medium-high temperature and flip the meat often. This will avoid charring, and that will prevent HCAs.

Another great technique, in case you have multiple burners within your grill, is to grill up each side quickly and then turn off the burner that lies directly under the meat while keeping the other burners on. That basically transitions your grill into an oven.

grilling carcinogens - dr. axe

Reduce Grilling Carcinogens: Post-Grill

Once you’ve cooked the food, there is one very commonsense thing you can do to maximize flavor and minimize carcinogens.

Don’t eat char. Think about it. Char. It’s just burnt meat. It’s carbon. I know you like the idea of going all caveman with your singed side of mammoth, but char doesn’t even have any flavor. Don’t eat it — cut it off. If you do this one simple thing, you’ll eliminate many of the HCAs that do form despite your marinade protection.

Final Thoughts on Grilling Carcinogens

Even briefly marinating foods is effective in reducing the amount of carcinogens — in some cases by as much as 92 percent to 99 percent. As a rule, use about one-half cup of marinade for every pound of food, although large pieces may need more to cover the food’s surface adequately. (3)

The amount of marinating time is up to you because it only takes a few minutes to get the full cancer-preventing effect. Longer times will just add more flavor — good health has never been so tasty.

By going low and slow, and refusing to eat char, you’ll be able to get outside, grill and add flavor to your barbecue without compromising your health.

will clower


Will Clower, PhD, is the founder & CEO of Mediterranean Wellness and has worked with companies all over the world to improve the health of their employees by providing the tools they need to incorporate the Mediterranean dietary habits into their daily lives.

Dr. Clower, author of The Fat Fallacy and The French Don’t Diet Plan, applies his neuroscience doctorate to explain how the Mediterranean culture can help people lose weight, improve heart health and liver longer.  He applies this behavioral neuroscience training to the science of eating behavior.

Dr. Clower’s work has been featured on Dr. Oz, The View, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, USA Today, New York Times and Readers Digest.

Josh Axe

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  1. Cindy Polson on

    Help! I had the Dashboard of Dr. Axe’s videos and other stuff pinned to a tab on my computer. Today it was gone and I don’t know where to find it. Plus I tried to log in but it did not recognize my email. Then I see there was a charge: DRJOSHAXE 615-3487530 TN DEBIT FOR CHECKCARD XXXXX $-47.00
    Since I cannot log in, I don’t know what that was for. Can you help me?

  2. Patrizia on

    All r info is GREAT stuff … But why can’t I share it with friends on FB… I tried and it won’t let me :-(

  3. Jill Myers on

    $47.00? Did you check your email for a receipt? That usually accompanies a purchase. Give the contact for Dr. Axe an email to follow-up where it went. That 615-348-7530 is the contact phone number. Give them a call and get details and your possible refund if appropriate. Just call and ask.

  4. Larry Snider on

    How do you get rid of phlegm. I’ve had I’d daily for 2 years hacking it up usually in the evening and morning when I wake. A GI doc diagnosed it as Barretts Esophagus then said take Nexium. I tried it for 2 months and no help. I feel perfect and eat right according to all the studies but can’t get rid of this annoying phlegm. Feels like it’s coming from the lungs but X-rays show nothing. Will you email the reply to me or how do I see your response since this is the first time I’ve seen your site.


    • Tami on

      @ Larry Snider
      you are obviously reactive to something you’re consuming. Could be allergy or could be immune response. Do an elimination diet like Whole30.com to find out what it is and just stop consuming it.

  5. Ron on

    On your infographic above (GRILLING Rules to Live By), under “Grills with Multiple Burners” it appears #3 needs to be edited as it contradicts the article.

  6. Dawn on

    There is a mistake in the graphic in regard to burners mid-grill. The article says leave the other burners on, while the graphic says to leave the other burners off.

  7. Dr. Jeff Kapp on

    Sorry, but I love char and charred meat. I have no concerns otherwise. I am and will continue to be healthy and thriving!

  8. Tabs on

    What about ANY smoked goods? Smoked salmon, smoked paprika etc. Are these goods smoked with real smoke or just a smoke flavour from chemicals?

  9. Ben on

    The world health organisation states processed meat is a definate cause of cancer while red meat is a possible cause of cancer. Dr Axe, I think you need to change your stance on the consumption of meat. Eating meat is not healthy no matter how you cook it, its bad for the environment and shockingly brutal for the animal. I heard you say once your a conscious meat eater. Im not sure being conscious of eating animal flesh that causes cancer changes anything I just mentioned above. Dont try to promote health and wellness then encourage eating meat, its wrong, and deep down I think you know it.

    • Tami on

      Maybe you have moral issues with meat eating but we were made to eat it. Healthy meat (free range / grass fed / humanely raised) does not cause cancer (and there is no proof that it does). Check out PPNF.org for valuable info on diet and nutrition.

      • Ben on

        The consumption of animal protein is very problematic for humans. Heart disease, cancer and disbetes can be linked to new a few diseases that can be traced to it. A whole food plant based diet can reverse these conditions. I switched to organic food 7 years ago, including meat and dairy, i believed just as you do now, organic meats are better. However after studying nutrition intensively for several years and becoming gaining my qualifications. The evidence suggests we are not designed to eat meat, it is not healthy, it is not needed.

  10. Kyle on

    I’ve read about this a lot, but still don’t believe it. Humans have been cooking over fire since, well since fire was discovered. Why is it so harmful in the 21st century? More research needed.

  11. J on

    Well done. Excellent. This is all about arguably saving lives, definitely saving quality of life. This is uber helpful and I am grateful for reading this. Thank you. I sent this to my husband, who does the grilling, hopeful he will read it and not just glaze over,and transport into his ‘wife talking’ pod, if I tried to relay this vital vital info.

  12. Cyndy on

    Great article! However, there’s a conflict in the body of the article and the graphic. In the article, you state to turn off the burners under the meat and leave the others on while in the graphic you state to turn ALL burners off. Which is it?

    Also, as a patient who was recently diagnosed, in January, with Stage 0, aggressive chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). I immediately stopped ALL sugar (use Stevia) and began a Ketogenic Diet eating mostly fruits, veges and organic meats (mostly organic, free-range chicken). My blood was re-checked in May. While my white blood cell count is still condidered high (at 16.71) it has gone down considerably! I am at a loss as to what the culprit could be (and I would like to know) but, I can only reason that the WBC count went down due to trying to build up my immune system with various vitamins and minerals (daily multi-vitamin for her, magnesium, CoQ10, vitamin D-3, omega-3, biotin) and eating cleaner, keeping in mind to stay away from toxins. If anyone out there has any information on this topic, please kindly “reply” and lend me more information because I am wondering if I can reverse this CLL back to the Monoclonal B-cell Leukocytosis blood disorder.


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