Safer Summer Grilling

Summer has arrived in Portland, and for many of us, that means firing up the grill. Grilling is a great way to prepare meals — no added fat (such as with sautéing or frying), 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.

While there is no research that directly links grilling to cancer, there are simple ways to reduce your intake of these potentially harmful compounds. Follow these tips to stay healthy this grill season:

  • Choose lean meats. Fattier meats such as ribs, hamburgers, marbled steaks and dark-meat chicken produce more drippings when they are grilled (in addition to providing more artery-clogging saturated fat than leaner meats), 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 or flank steak, and trim away any visible fat before cooking. Remember to stick with the recommended 3-ounce portion of meats (the size of a deck of cards).
  • 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.
  • 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. Fish cooks faster than meats and poultry, and less time on the grill means less HCA and PAH formation — one more reason to increase consumption of fish and seafood! After grilling, trim away any charred spots on meats.
  • 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 vegetables and fruits.) 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.
  • Keep it clean. Always clean your grill well after each use to prevent charred foods from building up on the grates.

This summer you’ll find me outside, safely enjoying Portland’s bounty of vegetables, fruit and fish on the grill. Here’s one of my family’s favorite recipes — try it and let me know what you think!


Tracy Severson, R.D., L.D., is the dietitian for the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the Knight Cardiovascular Institute. She specializes in nutrition counseling for cardiovascular health and weight management.