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1 July 2005
Barbeque Cancer Warning

Sizzling meat on the barbeque may be an appetizing thought, but all that barbecuing may be cooking up cancer-causing chemicals, say researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But it is possible to safely enjoy those summer time favorites like grilled burgers, steaks, and chicken by being careful and making wise choices, says Dana-Farber nutritionist Stephanie Vangsness.

Past research has shown that high-heat grilling can convert the proteins in red meat, pork, poultry and fish into heterocyclic amines (HCAs), chemicals that have been linked to a number of cancers. Additionally, the smoke generated when fat and juices drip on hot coals or rocks can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), another potential cancer causing chemical. As the smoke rises up past the food it can deposit these chemicals onto the meat. "The main cancer causing compound that occurs in grilling comes from the smoke," says Vangsness. "So you want to reduce the exposure to that smoke."

There are a number of ways to grill foods more safely, said Vangsness, and offers the following tips:

Prep the Meat

  • Choose lean cuts of meat, instead of high-fat varieties such as ribs and sausage.
  • Trim all excess fat and remove skin.
  • When using marinades - thinner is better. Thicker marinades have a tendency to 'char', possibly increasing exposure to carcinogenic compounds. Also, use marinades that contain vinegar or lemon.

Limit Exposure

  • Partially cook meat and fish in a microwave before grilling. This will limit the time needed to cook on the barbeque.
  • Discard any juices or marinades before grilling. This will cause less smoke flare ups, limiting exposure to the cancer causing agents.
  • Always thaw meat first. This will reduce the cooking time.


  • Flip burgers often: at least once every minute.
  • Try to place food at least six inches from the heat source.
  • Create a barrier to prevent juices from spilling and producing harmful smoke. Try lining the grill with aluminum foil with holes poked in it.

Choose Preferred Cuts

  • Lean meats create less dripping and less smoke.
  • Choose smaller cuts of meat, as they take less time to cook.
  • Try grilling your favorite vegetables. They do not contain the protein that forms harmful HCAs!

Vangsness says it is important for people to keep their grilling-related cancer risks in perspective. "If you're grilling and following the proper safety tips, the risk of getting cancer from grilling food is extremely low."

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