There’s something about a grill that can make any type of food irresistibly lip-smacking, whether you’re a carnivorous Paleo eater or strict vegan. But while our love for barbecue may be universal, it also may be putting our health at risk.
Many studies have shown that there is a significant link between cancer and burned or charred food. The blackened parts of grilled or roasted food are a source of carcinogens, which can damage DNA and eventually lead to cancer-causing mutations. Direct cooking over high temperatures also releases toxic chemicals into the food. 1
What Happens When You Grill Food
When burned or charred, meats are especially prone to forming carcinogenic chemicals. Even vegetarians aren’t totally out of the clear: Cottage cheese and tofu are also known to release similar amounts of carcinogens. When proteins are heated to a point of charring (be it via pan frying, grilling, or cooking over an open flame), chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are released into the food. In lab experiments, HCAs and PAHs were proven to be mutagenic, that is, causing changes in the DNA and, consequently, leading to cancer.
HCAs and PAHs were also found to cause cancer in animals in several experiments. Rodents that were fed HCA-supplemented foods developed tumors in the breast, colon, liver, skin, lungs, and prostate glands, while those fed with PAH-supplemented foods developed blood cancers like leukemia. Incidentally, PAHs are also found in cigarette smoke and are linked to lung cancer. 2
Starchy foods, meanwhile, can be victim to a toxin called acrylamide, which has also been linked to cancer. This chemical is usually formed when foods like grains or potatoes are cooked at temperatures above 250°F (think: french fries, chips, and burned toast). Frying, baking, roasting, or grilling is more likely to lead to acrylamide formation than boiling, steaming, or microwaving. And while the data is still inconclusive, the EPA classifies acrylamide as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” based on the results of studies involving lab animals. 3
Best Practices for Safe Grilling and Barbecuing
Knowing all this, do you dare go back to that beloved barbecue? Yes, go for it! Just be a little more mindful of how you use it. There are several tricks to avoid or at least limit your exposure to the carcinogenic chemicals ingested via burned or charred food. 4