You probably know that grilling your protein is healthier than frying it because you reduce fat calories, which can help lower high cholesterol, but the type of protein you choose matters. While eating red meat has nutritional value, it is associated with a higher risk of developing cancer. Red meat is considered a “probable carcinogen” by the American Cancer Society, and some experts are concerned that grilled red meat could present an even more serious health hazard.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are classified as probable carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are chemicals that form when meat is cooked at the high temperatures that occur during grilling. HCAs are produced by a reaction of amino acids, sugar and creatine at high temperatures (above 300°F), and PAHs are in the smoke from open flames. Food chemists have studied which cooking methods produce the highest and lowest amounts of HCAs and PAHs. They found that HCAs form in or on the surface of meat when it is cooked on high heat, for a long time. PAHs form when fat drippings from meat cause flames and smoke. Smoke contains the PAHs, which attach to the meat.

Colon Cancer

A 2015 study examined the link between types of meat and colorectal cancer risk, taking into account cooking techniques. Close to 7,000 participants completed a food frequency questionnaire that included questions on portion sizes and how often they consumed different types of meat (beef, poultry, lamb, pork, processed meats and fish). The questionnaire also asked about cooking methods (fried, broiled, grilled) and the meat’s level of doneness (light, medium, dark).

The results showed an increased risk of colorectal cancer in diets that are high in pan-fried beefsteak and oven-broiled short ribs cooked with barbecue sauce or similar marinades. Surprisingly, there was a decreased risk of colorectal cancer in diets with grilled hamburgers and no effect when using Asian-style marinades. Researchers suggest that colorectal cancer risk can be lowered by avoiding sugar-based marinades, flipping meats often, reducing the pan temperature and/or preheating meats with the microwave to decrease cooking time.

Breast Cancer

Some gene mutations are linked with breast cancer (CYP1A1 rs1048943 and CYP1B1 rs10175338), and researchers have found that people who eat  higher amounts of grilled or smoked meats are subject to an additive and multiplicative interaction in the cells that further increases the risk of the gene mutation leading to breast cancer.

In one study, postmenopausal women who ate small amounts of fruits and vegetables and more grilled and smoked meats during their lifetime had higher odds of developing breast cancer. This suggests lifelong diets that include higher amounts of fruits and vegetables and lower amounts of grilled and smoked meats are more preventive of postmenopausal breast cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer

Researchers have found a significant link between consumption of meat and pancreatic cancer. Cancer cases and risk significantly increased with intake of meat, especially red meat, meat cooked at high-temperatures, grilled or barbecued meat and well and very well done meat.

Bottom Line

  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemical compounds that are formed when red meats are cooked at high temperatures and are very well done.
  • HCAs and PAHs are linked to increased cancer risk for colon, breast, pancreatic and other cancers.
  • Decrease your cancer risk by eating less grilled red meat, especially fatty or processed red meats. Consider chicken, turkey or fish protein sources.
  • Begin to grill meat no sooner than 12 minutes after the charcoal begins to flame. Researchers have studied PAH content from grilled meat and found that steady heat reduces PAH content. PAH content was found to be at its highest in meats that were grilled before the 12 minute mark.
  • Choose lean meats or remove meat drippings, so they do not burn on the charcoal.
  • Flip the meat often.
  • Pre-cook meat (in the microwave) before grilling to shorten cook time.

Healthy Grilling Recipe

Download our Asian grilled chicken and vegetables recipe.


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