Don’t grill without our guide

Tips for a safer, healthier barbecue

Nothing screams summer more than barbecue. But cooking meat, poultry, or fish at high temperatures until well done can create heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Both cause cancer in lab animals.

Here’s how to reduce them…and avoid food poisoning.


Marinate: Marinating cuts HCAs. To prevent bacteria that can cause food poisoning from multiplying, thaw and marinate in the fridge, not on the counter. And don’t brush meat with leftover marinade while it’s cooking.

Flip, flip, flip: Flip meat every minute or so. That helps it cook faster, which could cut the HCAs by 75 to 95 percent.

Switch utensils: Don’t serve grilled meat, poultry, or seafood using the same tray or utensils that you used when they were raw.

Lose the meat: Try veggie burgers. They should have few or no HCAs. And cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage may even help the liver detoxify HCAs. Coleslaw, anyone?

Refrigerate leftovers: Don’t let food sit out for more than 2 hours (1 hour if it’s above 90º F outside).

Mind the bristles: If you use a wire bristle brush to clean your grill, inspect the grill’s surface closely before cooking. Wire bristles that fall out can stick into any food you grill. In rare cases, eating that food could land you in the emergency room.


Char: Trim any visible fat, so it doesn’t drip onto the heat source. That can create flare-ups that contain PAHs, and can char the meat, which creates HCAs. Or move the meat away from the heat source (push the coals to the side or turn off a burner).

Use mechanically tenderized meats: Unless you like your steaks well done, don’t buy beef that’s labeled “mechanically,” “blade,” or “needle” tenderized. It’s been pierced by tiny blades or needles, which can push bugs that are on the surface deep inside.

Overcook: The drier and more well done, the more HCAs you get.

Undercook: Use a food thermometer to make sure the thickest parts reach:

  • Chicken: 165º F
  • Beef, pork, lamb (ground): 160º F
  • Beef, pork, lamb (steaks or chops): 145º F (let rest for at least 3 minutes)
  • Fish: 145º F (or until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork)

Comp. Rev. Food Sci. Food Safety 10: 52, 2011.
Nutr. Rev. 63: 158, 2005.
Otolaryngol. Head Neck Surg. 154: 645, 2016.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Photo: Dennis Cox/

The information in this post first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

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