Grilling frequently can increase a person’s risk of cancer, as meat cooked at high heat and over smoke creates carcinogenic compounds. Charcoal also typically creates more smoke than gas.

does charcoal cause cancerShare on Pinterest
Glasshouse Images/Getty Images

Many people consider grilling to be an essential part of summer. In fact, most Americans report grilling at least once a month over the summer months.

Despite its popularity, you’ve probably heard the rumor that grilling is bad for your health. Unfortunately, there is some truth to the rumor.

Grilling with charcoal is associated with an increased cancer risk. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this summer favorite. There are ways to reduce the risk and make your next hot-off-the-grill meal safe, healthy, and delicious.

Is charcoal carcinogenic?

Anything that is shown to promote the growth of cancer is considered to be carcinogenic.

Charcoal itself is not a carcinogen, but cooking with charcoal does have a link to cancer. There are two main reasons for this. The first risk of charcoal use is that you’re cooking foods at very high temperatures, the second is that charcoal cooking creates a lot of smoke. Both smoke and high-temperature cooking of certain meats are known to be carcinogenic.

Of course, charcoal isn’t the only way to cook food at high temperatures. Additionally, not all foods respond the same way to charcoal cooking, meaning that not all types of charcoal grilling carry the same cancer risk. In fact, some types of charcoal grilling are considered very safe. However, cooking with charcoal can create carcinogens in some foods.

Does grilling cause cancer?

No one wants to think their beloved summer cookout might lead to cancer. Unfortunately, there are a few risks you should know about before you light the grill. Frequent grilling does increase cancer risk.

Correlation between eating red meat and cancer

Red meat is associated with numerous health risks, including an increased risk of cancer. Studies have shown that red meat is linked to an increase in your risk for colon and rectal cancer, and might be linked to an increase of other cancers. Research is still being done to determine why red meat increases the risk of cancer. 

Cancer-causing side effects of processed meat preservatives

Grilling processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausages, is linked to cancer. The World Health Organization classifies processed meats as a “Group 1 carcinogen” to cancer. The Group 1 designation means that there have been a large number of trusted and verifiable studies linking processed meats to cancer. Processed meat has been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. There is some evidence that processed meats might also increase the risk of stomach cancer.

Charring creates heterocyclic amines (HCAs)

When you grill meat at high temperatures, you create heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

HCAs are known carcinogens. They are formed when high temperatures cause amino acids in meat to react with the creatine in meat. This reaction creates the black char marks you see on foods and grill. It only occurs when you cook muscle meats because they are the only food that contain creatine. Muscle meats include:

  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • goat
  • turkey
  • chicken
  • fish

HCAs are also created when you use other high-temperature methods of meat cooking, such as pan frying.

Grilling creates carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

When meat juice drips onto coals and other hot surfaces, it causes flames and smoke. This causes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form. The PAHs then stick to the meat you’re grilling.

PAHs are also created when meat is smoked. They are known to change human DNA and are considered carcinogenic.

Is grilling with gas safer than charcoal?

Grilling with gas is considered safer than grilling with charcoal. You create a lot less smoke when you cook with gas, reducing the creation of PAHs. Gas grilling also doesn’t get nearly as hot, reducing the creation of HCAs.

However, keep in mind that gas grilling only reduces these risks but doesn’t eliminate them.

How to reduce carcinogens when barbecuing

You don’t need to give up your grill. By modifying what you grill and how you prepare it, you can reduce the dangers of grilling. That means you can enjoy a great cookout without an increased risk of cancer.  

Cut back on grilling red meat and processed meat

Both red and processed meats are associated with a higher risk of cancer. These risks go up when you grill them.  Red meats and processed meats are high in fat. This causes them to drip onto coals more, which increases the risk of PAHs. Additionally, you need to grill them for a long time to get them completely cooked. Longer grilling times mean higher temperatures and more smoke, the factors correlated to cancer risk.

Grilling lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish reduces risk. You can still create HCAs when you grill these meats, but the risk is not as high. You generally don’t need to leave these meats on the grill for nearly as long. This reduces the chance HCAs will form.

Additionally, lean meats are shown to be healthier overall, making them a smart choice. 

Grill more vegetables

The creatine that creates HCAs is only found in meat, but meat isn’t the only thing you can throw on the grill. Grilling fruits and vegetables is both safe and delicious. Vegetables don’t become carcinogenic when you grill them. They are also rich in vitamins, fiber, and nutrients that may reduce the risk of cancer.

So go ahead and throw pineapples, tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, and other fresh vegetables on the grill at your next cookout. 

You can even make a full meal and grill up skewers using vegetables, fruit, and small pieces of meat. This is a great way to make a colorful and healthy dinner on the grill.

By cutting meat into smaller pieces, you’ll reduce the time the meat needs to spend on the grill, potentially reducing the risk of cancer. If you want to get really creative, vegetable-based meat alternatives are also a great choice. 

Grill at lower temperatures and don’t char meat

High temperatures cause charring and HCAs. Grilling at lower temperatures may reduce this risk. You can use a lower flame to keep the temperature and smoking low. You can also move your coals to the side but keep your meat in the middle of the grill. It might take longer to cook this way, but if you keep temperatures low, you’ll cut down on the formation of carcinogens.

If any pieces of your meat do char, it’s best to discard those parts. The charred bits contain the most HCAs. So it’s a good idea to cut the burned and charred parts off any meat before you serve it. 

Reduce cooking times

You can reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs formed and your risk of cancer by reducing the time your meat spends on the grill. You can do this by baking or microwaving your meat before you grill it. The grill will still finish your meat, and you’ll still get that distinct grilled taste. 

Also, make sure you’re flipping your meat often. Don’t let one side get too overcooked or charred. The National Cancer Institute recommends continuously flipping or rotating your meat as it grills to reduce your risk. 

Marinate the meat first

Marinating meat before you cook can add flavor. It also has a huge impact on the formation of HCAs. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends marinating meat and fish for at least 30 minutes before grilling because it can lower the formation HCAs. Marinating meat has a bigger impact on reducing HCAs than the impact from lowering the cooking temperature.

However, be careful of pre-made marinades that use sugars or artificial ingredients. It’s best to make your own simple marinades with vinegar, oil, wine, or lemon juice, and your choice of herbs and spices. Many herbs and spices have the added benefit of containing antioxidants, making them an extra healthy choice for your grill. 

Cut the fat off your meat

Fat is what causes meat to drip and create the smoke responsible for PAHs. Selecting leaner cuts of meat may reduce this risk. You can also cut off any visible fat when you’re preparing meat for the grill.  

Be selective about the grill you use

Gas grills use lower temperatures and create less smoke, making them a safer option. If you want to use charcoal, it’s best to cook over low temperatures. One way to do this is to pay attention to the charcoal itself. You can select barbecue briquettes that have a lower burning temperature.


Grilling with charcoal, and grilling in general, is associated with creating carcinogens and increasing your risk of cancer. The risk is highest when you cook meat high in fat at high temperatures.

There are ways to decrease this risk.