Get Grilling Safely: Know how to reduce exposure to cancer causing chemicals in charred foods

by: Suellen Pineda, RDN, CDN.

Many people enjoy a perfectly grilled piece of fish, meat or grilled vegetables. Grilling is the go to cooking method for warmer temperatures. And it is not a surprise why. Grilling provides foods with a delicious smoky flavor profile that is juicy in the inside and a caramelized seared outside.

Grilling requires none or very little added fat, making it a great and healthy alternative for consuming protein without eating excessive calories from fat. This is especially true for fish, tofu, fruits and vegetables.

Most cuts of meat, including, pork, poultry and fish or shrimp are suitable for grilling. Just make sure—in the case of meats— to trim off excess fat that can cause flare-ups. Also, when grilling fish, make sure you don’t overcook it, as fish cooks much faster than meat and chicken.

But despite the so many great things about grilling, several health organizations have raised concerns about the association between meats grilled at high temperatures and the developing of certain cancers such as colorectal and pancreatic.

When muscle fibers in meat get in contact with direct heat and high temperatures like those in grilling, reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen chemical compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) are formed, especially in charred meats. Similarly, carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) form when dripping and juices from the meat get in contact with direct fire causing flames and smoke that adhere to the meats.

Once meat containing HCA’s and PAH’s is eaten, each person metabolizes (process) these substances differently. This process is called bioactivation. Research suggests that can manage to rid your body of these are the dangerous compounds that the National Cancer Institute warns in its website about role in increasing the risks for developing pancreatic, colorectal and prostate cancer.

The National Toxicology Program that is part of the US Department of Human Services in its Report on Carcinogens, Fourteen edition, identified four (4) carcinogens know to cause cancer in laboratory mice and rats. It is crucial to clarify those rats were fed large amounts of charred or grilled protein, as much as thousands the amount that any human could ever consume. Therefore, no current guidelines for safe grilled meats consumption exist.

Nevertheless, there are several things that we can do to minimize exposure to these dangerous compounds and still be able to enjoy your favorite barbeque recipe. First, avoid using excessively fatty cuts of meats if at all possible due to the potential flare-ups and thus PAH’s formation caused by the fat drippings.

Second, marinate your meats before grilling. Marinades not only add flavor, bit they also tenderize meats, reducing the time the meat needs cooked. Also, try flipping your meats several times during grilling and discard charred bits of meats before serving.

Last but not least, grill more fruits and vegetables and cut down on your stake. As you might have guessed it, vegetables do not appear to have the same effect on HCA’s and PAH’s formation as animal protein does. So feel free to throw vegetables such as onion, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, corn or Portobello mushrooms on the grill. Generally, vegetables don’t require marinating for hours to boost up their flavor. Some especially good additions to vegetables are minced garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and herbs and spices.

Enjoy and try this delicious recipe of Grilled Corn on the Cob with Guajillo Dressing

Guajillo is a Chile widely used in the Mexican cuisine. It’s one of the main ingredients in salsa roja (or red sauce) and used in red Pozole. One great thing about this recipe is that you can add as little or as much of the guajillo depending on how much ‘heat’ you can handle! I also added some chile Ancho to make the sauce even more interesting.

Type: Side/Snack

Difficulty: not too tricky
Yields: 2-3 cups of Guajillo sauce
Prep time: 25 minutes + 35 minutes, soaking time
Cook time: 15 minutes


3 Ancho chiles, dried, washed and seeded
3 large Guajilo chiles, washed and seeded
Water, just enough to cover chilies, about 1-2 cups
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp. dried cumin
3-4 garlic cloves
½ medium onion, roughly chopped
3-4 Tbsp low-fat sour cream
1 lemon juice
3-4 Corn ears, grilled or boiled
Salt and Pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese to serve (optional)


• Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
• Open each chili flat and place on the hot skillet. Press with a spatula. Cook for about 1 minute per side.
• Place chilies in a bowl, cover with just enough water and let sit for about 30 minutes to rehydrate.
• In a food processor, process rehydrated chilies, about a cup of the water they soaked in, garlic and onions. Process until smooth.
• Pass through a sieve.
• In a medium pot, heat the oil and cook the strained chili mixture for about 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, oregano and cumin. Remove from heat and let it cool.
• Mix in sour cream until well combined.
• Spread sauce on grilled or boiled corn ears.
• Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and garnish with cilantro leaves.

Suellen is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in the Rochester, NY area. Connect with her at or follow her on Instagram at @Suellen_Pineda