For many of us, one of the simple joys of summer is getting out of the kitchen and cooking dinner on the grill. It’s certainly convenient (and tasty). But, unfortunately, eating lots of grilled food might come at a cost – a higher risk of cancer. That’s because cooking meat over high, direct heat, produces cancer-causing compounds in the food.

Researchers have studied how eating grilled food affects your risk of developing cancer and how you can reduce that risk. The good news is, you don’t have to toss your grill. Instead, be aware that some foods are more harmful than others. Try to limit them and take steps to reduce the cancer-causing toxins produced with grilling.

Here are three things you should do to keep your grilled foods healthier:

Avoid Processed Meats

Processed meats include things like bacon, cold cuts, sausages, and hot dogs (even those made from turkey or chicken). Research shows they all cause cancer – especially colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. The nitrites used to preserve processed meats are the suspected link between them and cancer. Does that mean you can never enjoy a hot dog or sausage? No – but here’s why you should only have them every once in a while.

The American Institute for Cancer Research notes that the risk of colon and rectal cancer rises when you eat processed meats several times each week. In fact, if you eat one hot dog (or a serving of bacon, or cold cuts) daily, your risk of developing cancer is 16% higher than if you didn’t eat those foods.

How to Make it Healthier: Instead of tossing hot dogs or brats on the grill, choose chicken, fish, or lean grass-fed beef.

Turn Down the Heat

When you cook meat over a flame, or very high heat, cancer-causing substances are formed. Two in particular have been found to cause DNA mutations that trigger cancer cell grown in lab animals. They’re called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

  • HCAs are formed when proteins, sugars and creatine, found in muscle tissue, react with heat. All meats, poultry, and fish have muscle tissue, so all can form HCAs.
  • PAHs are formed when meat fat and juices drip onto a grill and cause flames to flare up. The flames and smoke contain PAHs, which are then deposited back into the meat.

It’s OK to heat your grill to high. Just turn the heat down before you put any meat, poultry, or fish on. Also, try to choose leaner cuts of beef which have less fat, and remove the skin from chicken. Lower fat foods won’t cause the flames to flare up and form PAHs.

Cutting foods into smaller pieces, like kabobs will also reduce the amount of time it spends on the grill.

How to Make it Healthier: If you love that charred flavor, save it for grilled vegetables – they don’t form those cancer-causing compounds. Plus, eating more vegetables independently reduces your risk of cancer.

Let It Marinate

Interestingly, marinating any meats, poultry, or fish in olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, or even beer before grilling cuts down on HCAs by anywhere from 50-90%. Bonus: If you marinate meats for 30-60 minutes you’ll not only cut down on those cancer-causing compounds but also add flavor and tenderize your meats.

It’s important to note that marinating in barbecue sauce can increase the number of HCAs formed. That makes sense, because most bottled barbecue sauces are quite high in sugar, and the combination of sugar, protein and heat is what creates the compounds.

How to Make it Healthier: Do a little advance planning and let your meat, poultry, or fish marinate for up to an hour before grilling. Experiment with lemon, garlic, and herb marinades – that combination can be especially healthy because of the antioxidants in the ingredients.

The Bottom Line

There’s no reason to cancel the rest of grilling season! Just make sure you’re taking steps to keep your grilled foods healthy and look for ways to add more vegetables (and grilled fruits) to your dinner plate. They’re always a healthy choice, by filling up on colorful produce, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of meat you eat.