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3 Ways to Have a More Healthful Barbecue

written by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. October 8, 2020
3 Ways to Have a More Healthful Barbecue

Cooking and dining outdoors may be enjoyable when the weather is warm. But before you fire up the grill at a backyard barbecue or a game-day tailgate and reach for steaks, burgers, or chicken, there’s something you should know. Research has shown that turning up the heat on meat can cause cancer-causing substances to form. Here’s what that means and how to have a more healthful cookout.

1.  Grilled meat is too dangerous – avoid it completely.

Meats contain several harmful elements, including animal protein, carnitine, arachidonic acid, and heme iron.1-4  Several large, long-term studies have linked high-animal protein diets to a greater risk of premature death.3,5,6 However, when you barbecue meat, you take it to a new level of danger.

Related: Eat Plant Protein to Live Longer

Video: What You Need to Know About Protein

Carcinogenic compounds are formed when meat is grilled or cooked at high temperatures.

Carcinogens in meats include:
  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) – formed in hamburger, steak, chicken, and fish during the cooking process. Higher temperatures and longer cooking times increase HCA production.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – These carcinogens form when meat is cooked over an open flame. When meat juices drip and the flame touches the meat, PAHs are formed.
  • N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) or nitrosamines – These are not formed during cooking. These are formed in the mouth and stomach from nitrate/nitrite preservatives found in processed meats.7 Processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausages, should be completely avoided. NOCs are potent carcinogens.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization, processed meats are carcinogenic to humans, and red meats are probably carcinogenic to humans.8  Both are strongly linked to colorectal cancer risk.9 In addition, a high intake of processed meat is associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.10,11

Even if you choose to eat animal products once in a while or use them as a condiment, you should still never eat processed meat, and never eat meat grilled or barbecued – it’s too risky.


2. You can grill vegetables safely and deliciously.

Fortunately, you don’t have to throw away your grill. But it shouldn’t be your main mode of cooking either. The only thing that can be grilled safely are vegetables and even then not until they darken, and not too frequently since there are safer and healthier ways to cook vegetables.

Marinated vegetables, mushrooms, and bean burgers are safe and delicious choices.

You can fill a grill basket with your favorite sliced vegetables or make vegetable skewers. Mushrooms, onions, garlic, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and yellow summer squash all combine well but get creative with your top picks or seasonal harvests. Their high moisture content will prevent burning.

But . . .

3. Don’t let your veggies brown!

Try blending spices with walnuts and a bit of your favorite vinegar and brush it on the veggies while on the grill. When grilling starchy vegetables, soak or marinate them first in a water-vinegar mix to increase their water content. This will minimize the production of acrylamide, which is a cooking-related carcinogen formed when starches are dry cooked at high temperatures.12 Acrylamide is considered probably carcinogenic to humans by the IARC.

The foods responsible for the greatest exposure to acrylamide are potato chips, French fries, and dry cooked starchy foods like baked goods and breakfast cereals, plus a small amount from coffee.12 Higher temperatures and longer cooking times increase acrylamide production. Liquid-based cooking – soups, stews, and water-sauteeing – is safer, since the moisture prevents the chemical reaction that forms acrylamide. Avoid eating the darkened portions of grilled vegetables to limit acrylamide intake.

Video: (free for members) Acrylamide

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Survey Data on Acrylamide in Food

Action items:

Grill corn on the cob in the husk, rotating frequently. The layer of the husk will minimize the browning of the edible portion. Then remove the husk and sprinkle with your favorite no-salt seasonings.

Make your own nutritious veggie burgers from whole foods: beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and onions.  Store-bought veggie burgers often have added oil and salt and concentrated soy protein.



  1. National Cancer Institute: Food Sources of Arachidonic Acid [http://appliedresearch.cancer.gov/diet/foodsources/fatty_acids/table4.html]
  2. Koeth RA, Wang Z, Levison BS, et al. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med 2013, 19:576-585.
  3. Levine ME, Suarez JA, Brandhorst S, et al. Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metab 2014, 19:407-417.
  4. Brewer GJ. Risks of copper and iron toxicity during aging in humans. Chemical research in toxicology 2010, 23:319-326.
  5. Lagiou P, Sandin S, Weiderpass E, et al. Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and mortality in a cohort of Swedish women. J Intern Med 2007, 261:366-374.
  6. Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med 2016.
  7. National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk.
  8. International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization. Press Relsease No. 240. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. 2015.
  9. Continuous Update Project Interim Report Summary.  Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer. . World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research.; 2011.
  10. Micha R, Wallace SK, Mozaffarian D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Circulation 2010, 121:2271-2283.
  11. Chen GC, Lv DB, Pang Z, Liu QF. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of stroke: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Eur J Clin Nutr 2013, 67:91-95.
  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Survey Data on Acrylamide in Food: Individual Food Products [http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/ChemicalContaminants/ucm053549.htm]


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