Wellness Tips: Shining Light on the Dark Side of Grilling

For many of us, warmer weather means firing up the grill and inviting friends over for a lazy summer barbecue. But around this time every year, news outlets and health bloggers start to focus on the dangers of charred and blackened foods. Could it be that an activity as ancient and benign as cooking over an open flame has sinister consequences? Let’s look a little closer at those grill marks.

First, let’s clarify the difference between grilling, blackening, and barbecuing. Grilling is cooking foods at high heat over an open flame (typically gas). Blackening is coating a food with an intensely flavored spice mix that when grilled, creates a deep brown or almost black crust on the outside and slightly replicates the flavors of open-fire cooking. Barbecuing is typically cooking meats slowly over a carefully moderated charcoal fire. (Sometimes people use the term “barbecue” to mean foods that are cooked over an open gas or charcoal flame. But, if you’re from a state like Texas, Kansas, the Carolinas — really, anywhere in the South — them’s fightin’ words.

Research has shown that high-temperature cooking methods such as grilling or barbecuing, as well as cooking meats for an extended period of time, cause proteins to change and form compounds known as hetrocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs can damage our genes in ways that may lead to cancer development. Research also shows that a separate cancer-causing compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form in the smoke and flare-ups that occur when fats and juices drip into the flames. These PAHs can bind to the outside of meat.

OK, so we know these carcinogens are being formed. Is there truly evidence that links blackening meat to cancer?

In short, from what we know right now, the type of food you choose to grill has more impact on your health than does the fact that you’re grilling it.

According to the National Cancer Institute, studies in rodents have shown that diets high in HCAs and PAHs lead to tumor development. But the doses given to rodents in these studies were extremely high, thousands of times the amount a person would consume in a normal diet. However, studying humans is harder, and showing a direct link between the creation of HCAs and PAHs from cooking to cancer has been limited. There are currently four ongoing studies assessing meat intake, cooking methods, and cancer risk in the United States, but the results have yet to be published. So, while we cannot exclude the role of the cooking method entirely, this should be a secondary concern, with the food being cooked as the primary.

In short, from what we know right now, the type of food you choose to grill has more impact on your health than does the fact that you’re grilling it.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that diets high in red and processed meats contribute to colorectal cancer, which is why the American Institute of Cancer Research suggests limiting consumption of red and processed meats to less than 18 ounces per week. In a 7.5-year study with more than 337,000 participants, about 1 in every 125 people was diagnosed with stage I to IV colorectal cancer. This study found that red meat and processed red meat were positively associated with colorectal cancer, while white meat was inversely associated with colorectal cancer. In addition to red meat consumption, those diagnosed with colorectal cancer were more likely to have a higher body weight, be less physically active, and have lower consumptions of calcium, fiber, fruits, and vegetables.

Although you’ve got a green light to heat up your charcoal and enjoy the weather, consider cutting down on the amount of red and processed meats you grill and consume. Try swapping your beef burger for a vegetable, salmon, or turkey burger, or consider exchanging your steak for sustainably sourced fish. And if you want to cut back on the amount of HCAs and PAHs on your food, make a blackening spice mix like the one below and roast your meat — then save the grilling for your fruits and vegetables. Need inspiration? Try these grilled vegetables or our grilled watermelon with lime-yogurt dressing!

Blackening Spice Mix Recipe

  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika

Combine all spices. Store in an airtight container for up to six months.

At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to nutrition@cafebonappetit.com.