5 steps to safer summer grilling

By Tracy Severson, R.D., L.D.

Summer is finally upon us here in Portland, and for many of us, that means firing up the grill. Grilling is a great way to prepare meals—no added fat, the kitchen stays nice and cool, plus the smoky flavor of grilled foods can’t be beat.

However, cooking meats at high temperatures (mainly grilling, broiling, and pan-frying) can form carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs form when meats, poultry, and fish become charred during grilling, while PAHs form from the smoke that’s produced when fat and juices drip onto the flame. For more information on HCAs and PAHs, visit the National Cancer Institute’s website.

There is no research that directly links grilling to cancer, and there are simple ways to reduce your intake of these potentially harmful compounds.

Follow these five tips to stay healthy this grill season:

  1. Choose lean meats. Fattier meats such as ribs, hamburgers, marbled steaks, and dark-meat chicken produce more drippings when they are grilled, leading to more smoke and thus, higher carcinogen formation. Choose lean meats and proteins such as fish, shrimp, skinless chicken breast, turkey burgers, pork tenderloin, extra-lean hamburgers, or flank steak, and trim away any visible fat before cooking.
  2. Marinate meats before grilling. Studies have shown that marinating meats before cooking, even for a few minutes, significantly reduces the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Choose marinades with vinegars, citrus juice, or wine, and add fresh herbs such as rosemary, basil, or thyme to further increase the antioxidant benefits.
  3. Limit time on the grill. Pre-cook meats and finish them on the grill to add flavor, or try cutting meats into bite-sized pieces and cooking them on skewers so they cook faster. Less time on the grill means less HCA and PAH formation. After grilling, trim away any charred spots on meats.
  4. Choose produce. Plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, and tofu don’t produce HCAs or PAHs when grilled, so make sure you’re piling on the produce. (As always, aim for half of your plate to be fruits and vegetables.) Try using a grill basket to keep smaller veggies from falling through the grill grates, and for dessert, grill fresh fruit such as peaches, pineapple, or plums for a delicious, caramelized treat.
  5. Keep it clean. Always clean your grill well after each use to prevent charred foods from building up on the grates.

I’m expecting the sun to come out for good any day now, and when it does, you can find me outside, safely enjoying Portland’s bounty of vegetables, fruit, and fish on the grill. Here’s a recipe I plan to make soon—try it and let me know what you think!


Tracy Severson is an outpatient clinical dietitian at OHSU. She moved to Portland from Tucson in 2010, and has worked at OHSU since 2011.

Tracy works with the OHSU Surgical Weight Reduction clinic and Cardiac Rehab program, and also provides medical nutrition therapy for General Adult Outpatient Clinics at OHSU.


One response to “5 steps to safer summer grilling

  1. Great article about summer grilling. These are great tips, Tracy, to maintain food safety but still keep grilling flavorful. Some of my favorite things to grill are vegetables, especially asparagus. I also really like the tip on marinating. Marinating is not only good for antioxidants, but also helps with flavor of course and tenderness. One of my favorites recipes, inspired by Chef Hugh Acheson is a marinated flank steak. Thanks for a timely and informative post.

Comments are closed.