2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

Charcoal Grilling and Cancer: How to Reduce Your Risk

First it was smoking (then asbestos and DDT) and now charcoal grilling. One after another, life’s little pleasures are yanked from us by their statistical associations with increased cancer risk.

By now everyone’s heard about the significant connection between colorectal cancer and regular consumption of red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (bacon, ham, sausages, cold cuts, hot dogs).

The risks of charcoal grilling have been known for some years, and fortunately their link to cancer isn’t as strong. I myself was initially skeptical about the connection between charcoal grilling and stomach cancer until one year I was physician for two men in their forties dying of stomach cancer, both with wives who told me their husbands “would eat anything as long as it was charcoal-grilled.”

Charring meat of any kind at high temperatures–and this includes poultry and fish–creates two compounds, heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both of which can alter cellular DNA and convert a normal cell to a cancerous one. Now admittedly, the exposure must be significant and probably needs to occur over a long period, but some families do grill a lot of food and some families are more cancer-prone than others, so it’s best to be on the safe side.

Here are four simple steps to reduce your exposure:

1.     Give preference to poultry, fish, veggies, and even fresh fruit, since grilling red meat and processed meats like hot dogs and bratwurst would be a double whammy (thus turning my old favorite–bacon-wrapped Polish sausages–into a smoking gun). Fruits and vegetables are very high in fiber and antioxidants and actually protect you from cancer. Grillable veggie favorites beyond the ubiquitous corn on the cob include asparagus, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and eggplant. Cut them into chunks for kabobs or slice lengthwise and use a grill basket or just lay them across the grill. Toss with some olive oil first to keep from sticking. If you’d like a recipe, click here. For fruit, slice slightly under-ripe apples, pears, melon, or peaches, brush with olive oil, grill, and serve sprinkled with cinnamon or tossed into a green salad. Recipe? Here you go.

2.     Marinate all meats for at least an hour to reduce hydrocarbon production when they hit the grill. Use a vinegar or lemon juice-based marinade such as this one. If you’re going to grill meat no matter what I say in this health tip, reduce your red meat exposure by keeping the portion to a few ounces or by substituting poultry or fish. Yes, I know charred hot dogs and burgers smell and taste heavenly—please don’t shoot the messenger.

3.     Another way to significantly reduce hydrocarbon and amine production is to partly pre-cook your meat before placing it on the grill.  While this will seem less-than-palatable to some of you, you can use a microwave or oven to partially cook your steak, chicken, or fish. Move it over to the charcoal grill to finish and you’ll still have a nice grilling flavor while allowing for a safer meal.

4.     Use indirect heat or a low flame and cook your meat slowly to reduce charring. Trim away as much fat as possible to prevent it from dripping, flaring up, and burning the meat. Keep coals to the periphery and grill the meat above the coal-less center (using a drip pan if needed), again to reduce the flare-up and burn. Before you serve anything, trim away as much charred material as possible. If you inadvertently overcook something and one side is black, toss the thing out and start over.

It’s ridiculous for us to give up all charcoal grilling. The connection with cancer is there, but it’s on the low side when compared to old favorites like cigarettes or asbestos. If anything, I’d recommend you make a conscious effort to reduce or eliminate grilling red and processed meats. Therein lies the greatest risk.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Sue says:

    Does the same risk come from a gas grill?

    • paulrubin says:

      Since the production of these dangerous chemicals is linked to high heat, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherent in gas or charcoal that makes one safer than the other.

  2. Jude Mathews says:

    Thanks for these tips. My small social group does tend to grill when we get together, so this will help us. But, what about the microwave, since you mention it in relation to pre-cooking meats? Can you write up something for us about that ubiquitous kitchen item, please?

  3. Joyce Prosise says:

    Enjoy reading your articles. Although I’ve been a vegan for some time now, grilled veggies was always a treat, but as of this year I’ve become a raw vegan and feel that this way of eating offers the best in the way of good health and energy. More vitality is the best answer when I think about eating old favorites. The raw community needs to continue developing delicious raw recipes to keep us on the right track! Now that I’m a senior, good health is at the top of the list.

  4. Andrea says:

    Love the way you acknowledge the appeal of some of these “bad habits” of ours. It’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down! And I’m sure it makes certain people much more able to read your blog =-D

  5. Alice Leong says:

    Hi, Dr. Edelberg
    Thank you for the interesting information. Does this apply to gas-grilled food as well?
    Thank you,
    Alice

  6. Alexander Charles says:

    Would you give some info about the role Activated Charcoal could play in healing and the possibility prevention, when it come s to cancer especially

    Thanks.

  7. Dr E says:

    Hi Alexander
    Activated charcoal and charcoal for cooking are two completely different substances. Rather than go through details, I have attached a link to explain the difference
    https://www.ehow.com/info_8271219_difference-activated-charcoal-charcoal-briquettes.html

  8. nikki says:

    what is it in the charcoal itself that is bad? We all know the risks associated with red meats regardless of how its cooking, i know the HCA risk comes with cooking above 325 degrees, wouldn’t that be for any cooking method, so what is it about charcoal itself that is different than say cooking on a propane grill?

    • cliffmaurer says:

      Hi Nikki – The problem tends to be with the char on the meat, no matter what kind of cooking methods you use. While a lot of us agree that it can be a delicious part of a BBQ, it should be avoided.
      -Dr M

  9. rookay says:

    This is all missleaeig information and leaves out a very important fact and that is that the charcoal its self contains carcinagens. Its widely known that the whils cookig with cahrcoal wind, oil dripping, fat splattering and such all distrubes the charcoal alliing these chemicals to attach to the fats and oils of the meats. Thats the charcoal taste and thats where the cancers coming from. Not just high temp cooking. Please update this as its missleading.

  10. sida says:

    Is it safer to grill steaks in the oven?

  11. Liana says:

    I’m looking to purchase a gas grill. Is this a safer alternative or will I experience the same concerns?

  12. Cyndi says:

    Great advise.looks to me, that if I want that steak on the grill once a month, then marinate, keep to a small portion,and cook slowly so it doesn’t burn

  13. Anne Watson says:

    Most charcoal bar soap and face wash products often warn users to avoid applying on sensitive skin, as it could irritate the skin. This is mainly due to the abrasiveness of the charcoal, which sometimes becomes worse when combined with other ingredients.

  14. Mary says:

    This is really interesting thank you

  15. jack william says:

    Thanx for the useful and authentic information you have share with this article
    it will be surely beneficial for everyone.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Charcoal Grilling and Cancer: How to Reduce Your Risk"
  1. […] Charcoal Grilling and Cancer: How to Reduce Your Risk | Whole …Jul 26, 2011 … First it was smoking (then asbestos and DDT) and now charcoal grilling. One after another, life’s … Fibromyalgia is Real · Fibromyalgia Quiz … […]

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our

patient-portal

The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Telemedicine – Now Available at WholeHealth Chicago

In order to maintain your continuity of care, WholeHealth Chicago now offers telemedicine appointments with most of our practitioners. During a telemedicine visit, you and your healthcare provider can review medical history, discuss symptoms, arrange for prescriptions, and more. When necessary, labs and diagnostic imaging can be ordered from a facility near your home, and our Natural Apothecary can ship supplements quickly to your door.

Please contact Patient Services for details and scheduling a telemedicine appointment, or to change a regular appointment to telemedicine by calling 773-296-6700.

We’re looking forward to meeting with you in our virtual consultation room soon.

DIAGNOSE-IT-YOURSELF: COVID-19

Far and away, the commonest phone call/e mail I receive asks about COVID-19 diagnosis.
Just print this out, tape it on your refrigerator door, and stay calm.

ALLERGIES

• Runny nose
• Sneezing
• Red, swollen eyes
• Itchy eyes and nose
• Tickly throat
• No fever

COLD
• Runny nose
• Sneezing
• Sore throat
• Mild muscle aches
• Mild dry cough
• Rarely a low fever

STREP THROAT
• Painful sore throat
• Hurts to swallow
• Swollen glands in neck
• Fever

FLU (Standard seasonal flu)
• Fever
• Dry cough (no mucus)
• Sudden onset over few hours
• Headache
• Sore throat
• Fatigue, sometimes quite severe
• Muscle aches, sometimes quite severe
• Rarely, diarrhea

CORONAVIRUS-COVID 19
• Shortness of breath
• Fever (usually above 100 degrees)
• Dry cough (no mucus)
• Slow onset (2-14 days)
• Mild muscle aches
• Mild fatigue
• Mild sneezing

Recent Health Tips

  • Brain Fog and What To Do About It, Part 1

    You can’t remember the name of the Netflix movie you just saw just last night, literally hours ago. And that actor–what was his name? He was in, you know, that other movie. You think it was a thriller, but maybe a war movie. Then you get a notice from Verizon that they’re turning off your phone for nonpayment. But you’re pretty sure you handled it. Read More

  • Protecting Yourself From Overdiagnosis

    Bill, a healthy looking guy in his mid-40s, came to WholeHealth Chicago because he wanted to get off Lipitor, the widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drug. Bill had virtually no risks for heart disease and all four of his grandparents were still alive and quite independent, but a few years ago his cholesterol was on the high side and his doctor insisted on the Lipitor. Arthur has Read More

  • Dying In A Leadership Vacuum: The NEJM Editorial in Context

    By now, you’ve probably read that the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an editorial entitled “Dying In A Leadership Vacuum” that asks Americans to work together to vote out Donald Trump because of his dreadful mismanagement of Covid-19 and the subsequent deaths of more than 220,000 Americans. To call the editorial scathing would be putting it mildly. If you don’t Read More

Join our Discount Program

Member benefits include 10% off all your purchases. Low, one-time membership fee of $25 ($35 for family).

MORE INFORMATION

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!