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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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. Alice Leong says:

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

  7. 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


  8. 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

  9. 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?

  10. 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

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