Grill Without Frying Your Family’s Health this Memorial Day

Grill Without Frying Your Family’s Health this Memorial Day

January 21, 2023

By Healthy Child Staff

At long last, the opening bell of summer has arrived. Sigh of relief. Whether you’re most excited about bare feet in the grass, having the kids out of school, or catching fireflies, chances are you’re also looking forward to firing up the grill. BBQ-ing is a cherished seasonal rite, and most of us will make or at least attend a barbeque this Memorial Day weekend. The problem is that their heat can burn more than dinner—if we’re not careful.

The same fire that produces flavor also produces toxins, chiefly chemicals formed when meat, including fish and poultry, is cooked using high heat. Specifically, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when substances in meat react together at high temperatures and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are created when burning fat produces residues that adhere to food surfaces. Both are suspected carcinogens. But don’t give up on your grill just yet. These strategies can put health back on summer’s menu:

  • Read up on grill health and safety tips. Use the healthiest and safest grill. Electric or gas models burn cleanest and coolest, and are most efficient and easiest to control. Hybrid grills that add a little charcoal or wood to the mix are next. In last place are charcoal and wood grills. (Sorry, purists!) If you’re willing to forgo char, solar ovens are arguably safer than all of the above.
  • If you insist on charcoal, use sustainably produced natural charcoal or wood, not petrochemical briquettes. (Hardwoods burn cooler than mesquite or softwoods.) And always light it with a chimney starter, never lighter fluid.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat, and remove fat and skin before cooking to reduce dripping fat. Or pick fish or shellfish, which drip even less and cook faster.
  • Make sure meat is fully thawed before grilling so it spends less time over flames.
  • Committed chefs may throw tomatoes at us for suggesting this, but consider “precooking” meat in the microwave for 2 to 5 minutes and only finishing it on the grill. Toss the juices that result and you’ll cut HCAs by up to 90%.
  • Cook small(er) pieces. They finish faster and that means less time for the undesirable chemicals to accumulate.
  • Grill veggies. They create few if any HCAs or PAHs, and their antioxidants may help counter any toxins on your plate.
  • Marinate. Even a few minutes in a marinade creates an edible barrier that protects against heat and HCAs. Marinades made with vinegar or lemon change meats’ acidity to help prevent PAHs from sticking to food. Sugary marinades encourage charring and should be saved for the final minutes.
  • Cook food as far above the heat as possible and keep flames and flare-ups to minimum.


Special thanks to Healthy Child Advisory Board member, Janelle Sorensen, who wrote the original January 2010 post upon which this is based.