The transition from spring into summer means one thing: it’s grill time! Firing up the grill is a great way to bring family and friends together, and the taste of a grilled steak or juicy burger is hard to beat. But there is a lot of confusion about the health effects of grilled meats. Grilled chicken and grilled salmon are touted as healthy choices on restaurant menus, but char-grilled and blackened meats raise concerns about cancer-causing compounds.

So, let’s start with the facts.

Harmful Chemicals in Grilled Meats

Cooking meats at high temperatures can produce several toxic (and hard-to-pronounce!) compounds. The most significant and potentially harmful of these are the heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs and PAHs are examples of a broader category of compounds, called advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

HCAs form when amino acids, creatine, and sugars react at high temperatures. Frying, broiling, or grilling generates more HCAs than baking, poaching, or steaming, and one study shows that meats cooked until well-done have 3 and a half times more HCAs than meats cooked until medium-rare.[1]

Different meats generate different levels of HCAs, with fried bacon being one of the worst offenders. Because the production of HCAs requires creatine (which is only found in animal products), fruits and vegetables contain no HCAs. PAHs form when meat drippings and fat drip onto the fire and create smoke. PAHs are in the smoke and then stick to the surface of the meat. PAHs can be present not only in grilled meats but also in smoked meats and in cigarette smoke.

Health Effects of HCAs, PAHs, and AGEs

Dietary AGEs (remember these include both HCAs and PAHs) are mutagenic, which means they damage DNA and can potentially lead to cancer. [2] The National Cancer Institute has said that “high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.” The Iowa Women’s Health Study finds that women who consistently consumed well-done meat had a 4.62 higher risk of breast cancer than women who ate their meat medium or rare.[3]

Dietary AGEs are readily absorbed across the intestinal barrier and can trigger oxidative stress and inflammation.[4] They do this by cross-linking proteins and altering the structure and function of body proteins. Oxidative stress and inflammation are bad news for all of us because they are associated with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and even weight gain.

Safe Grilling

Following a few simple steps can dramatically reduce your exposure to AGEs—even when grilling out. The first step is to marinate your meat before cooking. Using acidic marinades, that include ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar, reduce the production of AGEs.[5] Also, consider adding a variety of herbs and spices to your marinade. Herbs like rosemary and thyme have antioxidant properties that help your body combat the effects of AGEs. Do not use sugary marinades because those can accelerate AGE production.

When you have the meat on the grill, use lower temperatures and flip the meat often. Remove the blackened and charred parts of the meat after cooking to reduce your exposure to PAHs. Finally, serve your grilled meats with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The human body is always striking a balance between oxidative stress and antioxidant protection. The more phytonutrient-rich vegetables you eat alongside your meat, the easier it will be for your body to find a healthy balance.

A Novel Option

I would like to add one final pearl to this discussion of safe grilling. I have a novel option for those of you looking for that smoky, grilled flavor without firing up the grill. The Savory Spice Shop has several locations around Colorado. They stock a spice mix called Cook County Charcoal Seasoning that is delicious. The seasoning can be used on its own or mixed with salt, garlic, and additional herbs. I like to rub the seasoning on the meat and cook it in a pan on the stove at medium temperature. I like my steak medium rare. It will come out looking and tasting like it came off the grill. It is also a great alternative cooking method if you live where there are restrictions on outdoor grilling. Additionally, you won’t be ingesting as many carcinogenic compounds using this technique.

Cook County Charcoal Seasoning is made with activated charcoal that is produced from burnt coconut shells. Activated charcoal is not the same as the charcoal used in a charcoal grill. Activated charcoal has many health benefits, like supporting healthy digestion and reducing gas and bloating. The other ingredients in Cook County Charcoal Seasoning are Kosher salt, granulated garlic, granulated onion, black pepper, cumin, Mediterranean thyme, chipotle, Greek oregano, and hickory smoke flavoring. The Savory Spice Shop has recipe ideas for many ways to use the spice. Check out a popular salsa recipe here.

Other companies also make charcoal seasoning, but they often contain unnecessary additives and fillers‚ like silicon dioxide, soybean oil, dextrose, and MSG. One of the reasons I choose spices from the Savory Spice Shop is because they use the highest quality ingredients. In addition to the Cook County Charcoal Seasoning, they also have a wide selection of unique mixes to use in meat marinades or rubs. Even better—the Savory Spice Shop is a local company with top-notch customer service. I am not affiliated with the Savory Spice Shop and get no financial gain from their sales. I simply know a good thing when I taste it.

Enjoy the summer grilling season and remember—everything in moderation!

Would you like to learn more about how to avoid hidden sources of MSG? Download Dr. G’s guide to MSG and Aspartame here:


[1] Puangsombat, K, P Gadgil, TA Houser, MC Hunt, and JS Smith. “Occurrence of Heterocyclic Amines in Cooked Meat Products.” Meat Sci 90, no. 3 (2012): 739–46.

[2] Tamae, D, P Lim, GE Wuenschell, and J Termini. “Mutagenesis and Repair Induced By the DNA Advanced Glycation End Product N2-1-(carboxyethyl)-2’-deoxyguanosine in Human Cells.” Biochemistry 50, no. 12 (2011): 2321–29.

[3] Zheng, W, DR Gustafson, R Sinha, JR Cerhan, D Moore, CP Hong, KE Anderson, LH Kushi, TA Sellers, and AR Folsom. “Well-Done Meat Intake and the Risk of Breast Cancer.” J Natl Cancer Inst 90, no. 22 (1998): 1724–29.

[4] Uribarri, J, W Cai, O Sandu, M Peppa, T Goldberg, and H Vlassara. “Diet-Derived Advanced Glycation End Products Are Major Contributors to the Body’s Age Pool and Induce Inflammation in Healthy Subjects.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 1043 (2005): 461–66.

[5] Uribarri, J, S Woodruff, S Goodman, W Cai, X Chen, R Pyzik, A Yong, GE Striker, and H Vlassara. “Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet.” J Am Diet Assoc 110, no. 6 (2010): 911–16.e12.

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About The Care Group: We promote optimal wellness by providing an individualized, functional medicine approach to address root causes rather than simply treating symptoms. We help patients with a wide range of issues including autoimmune/ inflammatory disease, digestive disorders, hormone imbalances, and mood disorders. To learn more about our practice, click here.

About the Author: Dr. Gerard Guillory, MD is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and has published two books on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In 1985, he opened The Care Group, PC. Today, his clinic is a Primary Care facility that is a hybrid of functional and traditional medicine treating patients with digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, and other conditions. You can learn more about Dr. Guillory here.