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Is Grilled Food Safe to Eat?

Is grilled food safe to eat?
Is grilled food safe to eat?

Memorial Day kicks off grilling season in the North America. There’s nothing quite like preparing a meal outside to enjoy in the fresh air. In fact, 64% of US households own at least one outdoor barbecue, grill, or smoker. But is grilled food safe to eat?

To prepare you for a safe, healthy, and delicious summer of BBQs, below are tips from grill experts.

Fire Safety Tips

As much fun as grilling can be, the National Fire Protection Association reminds home cooks to keep in mind a few fire safety tips:

  • Always make sure your gas grill lid is open before lighting it.

  • Keep your grill clean by removing grease or fat buildup from the grills and in trays below the grill.

  • Never leave your grill unattended.

cleaning grill
Cleaning your grill can help prevent grease fires and charring.

Keeping Grilled Meats Safe and Healthy

Even if you take fire safety precautions, is grilled food safe to eat? Studies have found that eating grilled meat or chicken may increase mutagenic compounds called “HCAs” and “PAHs” that have the potential to increase the risk of developing cancer.

The amino acids, sugars, and creatine in meats react at high temperatures, forming heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Meanwhile, the smoke and flames of the grill cause polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs and PAHs may be harmful to human health, but they can be limited or avoided altogether.

To reduce HCAs and PAHs in your meat or poultry when grilling, follow these tips:

  • Trim the fat off your meat so it can’t drip down and cause the flames to flare-up.

  • Marinate meat and poultry for at least 30 minutes to reduce HCAs. “If you put a barrier of basically sugar and oil between the meat and the heat, then that is what becomes seared instead of the meat,” Nigel Brockton, VP of Research at the American Institute for Cancer Research, explained in a NY Times article.

  • Dr. Brockton also suggests adding spices and herbs like rosemary, tea, or other high-phenolic foods with antioxidants to your meat before grilling. The antioxidants can collect and neutralize the free radicals in your grilled meat that doctors associate with cancer.

  • Slow and low is the key to reducing carcinogens. Grill over a low flame and/or raise the grill rack.

  • The National Cancer Institute recommends flipping meat and poultry often to reduce HCA formation and avoid charring your food. If you accidentally blacken the meat, cut that outside layer off to prevent ingesting it.

  • Gas grills are better since charcoal can increase the HCAs and PAHs produced.

seasoning meat before grilling
Trimming fat, marinating, and seasoning with antioxidant-rich herbs can reduce carcinogenic compounds in grilled meat.

Are Grilled Fruits & Vegetables Safe to Eat?

If limiting HCAs and PAHs sounds too complicated, a simpler way to prepare safe and healthy foods on the barbecue is to grill fruits and vegetables instead. Fruits and veggies lack the creatine that develops HCAs in meat. Additionally, fruits and veggies don’t have the same dripping fats that can fuel high flames and PAHs. (Read my bog on how to choose ripe fruits and veggies here.)

Grilled fruits and vegetables are safe to eat as long as you don’t eat the charred skin. If you blacken your fruits or veggies to the point of burning or charring, peel that portion of skin off prior to serving.

Grilled fruits and vegetables are a new way for many people to enjoy more fruits and vegetables. (Here are more ways for selective eaters to enjoy more fruits and veggies.) Home cooks might opt to cook their meat at low temperatures in the oven and use the grill flames for their colorful produce instead.

grilled veggies safe to eat
Grilled veggies are safe and offer new flavors, textures, and an easy way to eat more veggies.

If you have a favorite grilled fruit or vegetable recipe, please share it in the comments!

To subscribe for free nutrition tips and allergen-friendly recipes, or to make a virtual appointment with a Registered Dietitian, visit


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