Does BBQ Meat Cause Cancer?

Last Editorial Review: 8/21/2017

Ask the experts

What are potential health problems that can be connected to eating barbecued and smoked meats?

Doctor's response

Lots of images like family gatherings, 4th of July, tailgate parties, and warm summer nights come to mind when you hear barbecue. In fact, one of the definitions for barbecue is "a social gathering, usually held outdoors, at which food is cooked over an open flame." On the flipside of this joyous event is the reality that there is research that shows that barbecuing can be hazardous to your health. But don't worry, there is still a way to have your "barbecued steak" and eat it too.

The health problem lies in the meat. Research has discovered two cancer-causing (carcinogenic) byproducts associated with barbecuing red meat, poultry, lamb, pork, and fish. The first is a carcinogen called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). The National Institute of Health, Department of Health and Human Services included HCAs on its reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen list. HCAs are formed due to the high temperatures occurring when meat is overcooked or char-grilled. Studies have shown that when HCAs were fed in the diet, rodents developed cancers in many organs, including the colon, breast, and prostate. Research is still underway to determine if this applies to humans as well. The second carcinogen associated with barbecuing is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They are formed when fat drips onto the coal or hot surface. The smoke carries the PAHs to the food. They can also form directly on the food when it is charred.

The recipe for healthy barbecuing is to follow some simple tips:

  • Don't get too hot: Try to avoid overcooking food by precooking it in the microwave or oven so it won't be on the barbecue as long; keep the heat down on the grill and flip the food frequently to prevent overcooking on one side; buy thinner cuts of meat so that they don't take as long to cook; and test the meat with a thermometer to see when it's ready. The USDA Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures are:
    • Steaks & roasts - 145°F
    • Fish - 145°F
    • Pork - 160°F
    • Ground beef - 160°F
    • Chicken breasts - 165°F
    • Whole poultry - 165°F
  • Trim the fat: Go for leaner cuts of meat; cut as much fat off of the meat when possible; and flip your food instead of stabbing it with a fork to avoid the fat dripping onto the coal.
  • Take time to marinate: Some research has shown the ingredients (especially vinegar) in marinades act can actually protect the meat and reduce the chances of carcinogenic compounds forming. One study found that a beef steak marinated with teriyaki sauce had a 45% and 67% lower HCA level at 10 minutes than the unmarinated steak and that lower levels of HCA were also observed in meat marinated with turmeric-garlic sauce.
  • Keep it clean: Keep the oil and grease off your grill by turning up the heat to high and closing the lid for about 10 minutes.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine


"Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk"