Is Barbecuing Bad for You?

In today’s world, we are bombarded by toxins and potentially dangerous chemicals daily. Eating a bit of barbecued meat can’t be deadly, can it? According to the most current research and the American Cancer Society, barbecued meat does contain carcinogens; however, as with so many enjoyable things in life, moderation is key.

The primary culprits are HCAs (heterocyclic amines), which are recognized carcinogens that form when meat is cooked on hot surfaces at high temperatures, and Benzo[a]pyrene, found mainly in the smoke released from cooking. Primarily, these mutagens develop in overcooked, charcoal barbecued meat. A 2001 National Cancer Institute study found levels to be significantly higher in foods that were cooked to “well-done” on the barbecue.

Meat contains protein, which is made up of amino acids. When meat exposed to the heat of grilling, barbecuing and frying, HCAs are created. Several human studies suggest there is an increased risk for breast and colorectal cancers related to consuming foods that contain these carcinogens. Consuming large quantities of barbecued red meat can also increase your risk of colon polyps, which can develop into colon cancer.

Ideally, you want your meat to be cooked on the rare side, but you also want to reduce your risk for food poisoning. In the case of barbecuing, buying grass fed, organic meat can be more beneficial for your health than conventionally raised meat. Not only will the grass-fed meat be healthier for you, but it won’t have to be overcooked to be safe to eat! Grass fed beef or pastured poultry is higher in healthy omega-3 fats, and grass fed beef may be up to four times higher in vitamin E than beef from feedlot cattle. It is also much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may have cancer fighting properties. Beef from steers raised on forages had 550% more CLA …compared with beef from steers fed typical feedlot high grain diet.(1) By consuming beef from a grass-fed cow that was allowed to live a healthy, natural life, the meat will be much more nutritious and less likely be contaminated with harmful pathogens abundant in commercially farmed beef. Choosing grass-fed, organic meat allows you the confidece to eat safely by knowing that your meat was raised in a healthy, more natural environment.

Tips on How to Avoid Exposure to HCAs

  • Keep the heat low, and raise the grill above the heat, away from the charcoal or embers.
  • Keep meat away from direct heat.
  • Avoid charring or burning meat.
  • Marinate. Marinating has been shown to reduce the formation of HCAs. Research has shown that an olive oil, lemon juice and garlic marinade cut HCA levels in chicken by as much as 90%.(2) Six hours of marinating in beer or red wine cut levels of two types of HCA in beef steak by up to 88% compared with unmarinated steak.(3)
  • Remove any burned parts of the meat before eating.
  • Add grilled fruit and veggies to your plate. They’ll provide a healthy dose of antioxidants!


(1)Dhiman TR, Nam SH, Ure AL. Factors affecting conjugated linoleic acid content in milk and meat. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2005;45(6):463-82.

(2)Salmon CP, Knize MG, Felton JS. Effects of marinating on heterocyclic amine carcinogen formation in grilled chicken. Food Chem Toxicol. 1997 May;35(5):433-41.

(3)Melo A, Viegas O, Petisca C, Pinho O, Ferreira IM. J Agric Food Chem. Effect of beer/red wine marinades on the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in pan-fried beef.2008;56(22):10625-32.

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Dr. Isaac Eliaz

Dr. Isaac Eliaz, a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980's, is a respected author, lecturer, researcher, product formulator and clinical practitioner.

Since 1991 Dr. Eliaz has maintained a busy private practice in northern California that focuses primarily on integrative, holistic protocols for cancer patients. He leads an integrative medical team at Amitabha Clinic in Sebastopol, California with focus on cancer and other chronic ailments.

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  1. says

    You know I totally understand that charring meat can cause it to be carcinogenic. But what I don’t understand is how we survived. Cooking meat over a fire has been the number one way to cook for eons. I would have to think that most of the time the meat got charred and people ate it. Some may have liked it that way. But here we are – we survived carcinogenic meat only to be killed with high fructose corn syrup.

  2. Joseph Putnoki says

    Maybe some of our ancestors been killed off by charred meat. May also be hat some did not like charred meat and rescued it from burning to eat it and was not taken by cancer. The third possibility could be their lifestyle and varied nutrition, eating what was in season as well, established a robust immune system supported by their diet and active lifestyle what enhanced survival. Heredity is not destiny: our inherited genes good and bad both needed to be switched on to help or harm or switched of to help or harm respectively. Genes 50% and environment 50% for the outcomes.
    Be well!

  3. Dave says

    Amen Lila! My sentiments exactly. I’m not buying it. We’ve been eating charred meat since the caveman days. I think there has to be more to it than just what we’re reading. Maybe it’s more because of the added hormones and chemicals.
    I’m not ready to give up the summer barbecues yet! Hopefully all the fresh grilled vegetables will help cancel the negative effects of the grilled meats, poultry and fish. (Or are they going to tell us that’s bad for us too!).

  4. says

    I do agree that the Info about Charvosl meat would be Correct; I read once that the is Burnt, e.g. Charcoal, contains minute quantities of Radioactive particles, so i see the point; but i do think that other things come into Consideration, as it say’s “everything Moderation’, and i think a lot of Other things also should be taken into Consideration, also, Oure Immune system, Other Chemicals, Drugs, etc, we may have Ingested, Our Lifestyle, Enviremont and other Hazardous Materials we may have come into contact with during our Life, To you Good Health, m.c.

  5. Seg says

    Spot on article. I barbecue almost every week winter , spring,summer & fall but i always do at the LOWEST possible heat and my grill is cleaned pretty well before i place my meat on it. Always marinade my meats with a combination of EVOO , black pepper ,lemons or vinegar and a couple scoops of my blended herbs which are typically coriander, thyme,green onions and a ton of garlic, this add a really nice flavour to ours meats, whetherit be chicken, pork, beef, lamb any meats, i even put some of this blended seasonings in brown rice or pasta sauce and it really complements i tell you plus blending them ahaead of time saves time during the week which is a big plus for me…

    And i never forget the magic ingredient when bbqing LOVE, coupled with a nice glass or 2 of Bordeau or Chianti..CHEERS !!!!

  6. pedro mohr says

    OK so the cave man ate some over cooked meat sometimes but not so much as you may think.If he left it too long someone else wold grab it first to eat.There seem to be more cave alive today than ever before eating overcooked meat.In western countries that is.

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