Summer Grilling and its Effect on Health

Unless you have gone to culinary school or love talking about food, you are not familiar with the Maillard reaction coined after the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard. It is this reaction that gives grilled meat and veggies it characteristic pigments and flavors. The reaction rearranges amino acids and simple sugars in the food to create complex flavors and smells that we have come to love.

Foods that are boiled, poached, or steamed do not go through the Maillard reaction because the temperatures are not high enough to dehydrate the surface of the food. Foods grilled, roasted, or otherwise cooked at temperatures above the boiling point of water create this complex and delicious flavor. 

The chemical reactions that occur at these high temperatures may be great for flavor but may create carcinogens. For example cooking starch at high heats like making potato chips creates  acrylamide, a toxin that has been linked to cancer in the reproductive system. When we bake or grill, it leads to production of glycotoxins which create inflammation in the body.  Sometimes we are referred to as advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and lipoxidation end products (ALEs). They have all been linked to diabetes and dementia (Tareka, 2002).

Grilled meat creates the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which have been found to cause breast cancer, colorectal and prostate cancer (Zheng, 2009). Read more here: When we think of grilling, we are usually referring to charcoal grills. The additional toxins that are part of charcoal combustion are toluene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde as well as heavy metals including mercury and cadmium (Susaya, 2010). Using cooking gas can also coat the food with un-burnt fuel such and benzopyrene which is a PAH (Kozlowski, 1993).

It is summer and sometimes there is nothing better than grilling outside. The body has natural detoxification pathways that can detoxify the HCA’s, PAH’s, AGE’s and ALE’s. Because of this, the key is to not allow these compounds to accumulate beyond the body’s ability to remove them. Depending on your vitality and digestive strength it is generally ok to grill 1-2 times a week on a seasonal basis.

In order to minimize your exposure, please keep these points in mind:

  • Keep a clean cooking surface and favor a stainless steel or cast iron surface if you are sautéing on high heat instead of nonstick ceramic surfaces. If using an outdoor grill, make sure to remove any rust, charred meat or anything else.
  • Give preference to propane over charcoal as the fuel source for the grill and keep the heat low in order to prevent the grill from flaming and charring the food.
  • Garlic is often used in marinades and in addition to providing flavor it also limits the production of HCA’s.

If you love flavor, just remember there are many ways to minimize your exposure to toxic carcinogens while enjoying the foods you love.


Kabir E Kim KH, Ahn JW, Hon OF, Sohn JR. 2010 Barbecue charcoal and carbonyls. J Hazard Mater. 174(1-3);492-9

Kozlowski, J. 1993. Gas cookers as a source of benzopyrene emission. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 44(2-3);277-9

Susaya J, Kim KH, Ahn JW, Jun MC, Kang CH, 2010. BBQ charcoal combustion as an important source of trace metal exposure to humans. J Hazard Mater. 176 (1-3);932-7

Tareke E; Rydberg P. et al. (2002). “Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heated foodstuffs”. J. Agric. Food. Chem.50 (17): 4998–5006.

Zheng, W Lee SA. 2009. Well done meat intake, heterocyclic amine exposure and cancer risk. Nutr Cancer. 61(4);437-46