Written by Patricia Pimentel Selassie, ND

It’s here! Barbecue season has arrived. I like this season because when you can get together with your family and community, be outdoors in nature, and have some moments to relax, you actually send a signal to your body to unwind from work and stress and spend a little time healing. Here are some simple things you can do to make it healthier.

The well-loved char you get on your grilled meats contains Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). These PAHs are products of combustion and highly toxic and carcinogenic. PAHs cause changes to your DNA that can lead to cancer, especially pancreatic cancer. Other sources of PAHs are cigarette smoke, air pollution, auto exhaust, and diesel fuel. And in fact, humans have so much exposure to it that it can be found in our fat tissue.

So, when grilling, here are some tips to reduce your exposure to PAHs:

  • Choose a gas grill over charcoal when possible.
  • Clean and scrape your grill to remove as much carcinogenic residue and prevent the transfer of chemicals from the last time you grilled.
  • Choose veggie burgers and fish over meats since cook time is much shorter and therefore there is less chemical formation.
  • If cooking meat, choose lean meat and trim the fat before grilling. When fat and juices drip from meat, flames flare up, creating more smoke, which creates more PAHs.
  • Surprisingly, flipping the meat often can reduce chemical formation by 75%.
  • Finally, according to a study done by the American Institute for Cancer Research, marinating meat for over 30 minutes can reduce the formation of chemicals.  Jerk seasoning wins by reducing the formation of these chemicals by up to 88%! Not all jerk seasoning is the same, but it usually contains a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, thyme, and chiles. To me, this speaks to the power that herbs and spices have on our health. Other marinades offer protection, too; an herb marinade accounted for a 72 percent drop in chemicals, and a Southwestern mixture caused a 57 percent drop. That said, try a jerk seasoning on your food rather than the typical BBQ sauce that usually contains some gluten and sugar.

I hope this info on grilling allows you to enjoy a healthier Barbecue with your family and friends.


Smith, JS, Ameri F, Gadgil P, Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. J Food Science, Aug 2008, 73(6):  T100-5

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