Charcoal or gas grilling?

Charcoal or gas grilling?

True or False:  Marinating meat, poultry and fish before grilling reduces more than 90 percent of cancer-causing compounds. You’ll get the answer below.

Grilling season is upon us, and that’s a good thing. Grilling causes less mess in the kitchen and is a healthy, lower-fat way to prepare many foods.

Depending on how and what you grill, it can pose hidden dangers: increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other health complications.

Health problems arise from two sources: the interaction of heat and meat and the burn products of charcoal and gas.

  • Cooking animal protein – beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish – at high temperatures produce cancer-causing Heterocyclic Amines (HCA). Whenever meat is cooked at a temperature above 300 degrees, amino acids and creatine in the meat form HCA. The higher the cooking temperature and the longer the meat is cooked, the more HCA.
  • Combustion in your grill forms dangerous compounds called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). Burning wood or charcoal produces PAH, a compound present in cigarette smoke and air pollution. However, the greatest level of exposure is usually from food. PAHs form in charcoal smoke and when fat dripping causes flames to flare up.

You can substantially minimize the production of HCA and PAH without taking the fun and taste out of grilling:

  • Use a gas grill. Gas burns more completely than charcoal and coats the food with fewer PAH.  Charcoal grills emit more carbon monoxide, particulate matter and soot into the atmosphere. An electric grill is another great option that can be used indoors.
  • Go natural. Some chefs prefer charcoal for the flavor. If you must have charcoal, use a natural lump charcoal without additives and skip the lighter fluid. You’ll find natural lump charcoal in many stores. Start a charcoal fire with a chimney starter or kindling, not lighter fluid.
  • Marinate meat, poultry and fish. Marinating infuses food with flavor and inhibits potentially carcinogenic HCAs from forming while grilling poultry, meat and fish. Even a quick marinade before grilling can substantially reduce HCA.
  • Don’t overcook. Medium or medium-rare is tastier and safer.  If you like well-done meat, cook using smaller pieces or partially pre-cook larger pieces in an oven or microwave to shorten grilling time.  The less time spent over direct high heat, the safer the meat.
  • Tame the flames. Flare-ups from dripping fat cause carcinogenic PAHs to form on your food. Flames may char the outside of food before the inside has thoroughly cooked. Meat licked by flames also tastes “off.” To reduce flare-ups, select lean cuts of meat, trim excess fat and remove poultry skin. When fat starts to drip, move the meat away from the flare-ups. Finally, keep a squirt bottle of water near the grill to quickly douse any flare-ups.
  • Grill veggies and fruit. Most vegetables and fruits taste great when grilled.  And they don’t form toxic chemicals when exposed to high heat. Fill up on healthy, delicious grilled fruits and veggies to cut back on meat.
  • Have some wine. The antioxidants in wine provide a partial antidote to the HCA and PAH. Open a good bottle of wine, let the steaks rest for a few minutes after taking them off the grill and enjoy a fantastic meal with your family and friends!

Back to the original question: It’s true. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), marinating can reduce HCA formation by as much as 92- 99 percent.

Heather Klug is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wis.

Want to learn more about your risk for heart disease? Take a free online quiz to learn more. 

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  1. Janine Curtin RN May 27, 2020 at 9:32 am · Reply

    This article was very informative. I will apply what I have learned from it to my grilling practices. Thank you for providing this information! Janine

  2. It is interesting that you mention hazards surrounding the use of wood burning & charcoal. There are many chemicals/toxins in wood burning smoke alone, that pose respiratory, cardiac and a variety of other health issues. Particulate Matter (PM) small enough to enter the nasal passage and lodge in the lungs, creating the potential for lung cancer, is prevalent in this smoke. It contributes to air pollution, climate control and global warming. Health hazards of wood burning are recognized by organizations such as the EPA/DNR/ALA. Given a “huge” increase in recreational backyard wood burning, shouldn’t that raise a red flag as well? Has anyone conducted a study on this topic?

  3. I agree with commenter Pat regarding the “backyard recreational wood burning.” I’m a senior with respiratory problems in Homewood people are constantly burning these backyard wood fires (which our town calls family time backyard fire pits.) Whether it’s 40 degrees out or in the 90 degrees with high humidity and high winds the burning continues. Plus God only knows what else people are burning other than firewood is bad enough as the smell and smoke is really toxic smells like a dump most of the time. I have to shut myself indoors and use my air conditioning due to all of the family time recreational burning in the area. I thought it might stop or be banned with the coronavirus pandemic which causes respiratory breathing issues but my town still condones it.
    As Pat said it should be raise a red flag in regard to health issues. The American Lung association should get involved as well as EPA to protect citizens health from the hazard of the recreational backyard wood burning.

  4. It says that meat cooked at higher than 300 degrees produces HCA. I usually cook meat like chicken in the oven at 350 or 375 degrees. Is that going to produce HCA also?

  5. John Czarnecki July 4, 2022 at 5:16 pm · Reply

    It says that meat cooked at higher than 300 degrees produces HCA. I usually cook meat like chicken in the oven at 350 or 375 degrees. Is that going to produce HCA also?

About the Author

Heather Klug
Heather Klug

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.