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University of Iowa News Release


June 28, 2007

Grillers Should Be Cautious Of Health Risks

As summer temperatures creep closer to the triple digits, many people will opt to turn off the stove and head outside to fire up the grill.

Although grilling can be a good alternative to pan frying meat, people need to take precautions to avoid both food-borne illness and certain cancers that have been linked to grilling, said University of Iowa experts with the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Institute for Rural and Environmental Health.

"Research has shown that cooking certain meats at high temperatures creates chemicals that are not present in uncooked meats, and a few of these chemicals may increase cancer risk," said Joan Felkner, administrative coordinator of the Cancer Information Service at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. Specifically, the chemicals may increase risk of breast, colorectal, stomach and pancreatic cancers.

The culprit is a chemical known as a heterocyclic amine (HCA). HCAs form when muscle meats like beef, pork, fowl and fish are cooked at very high temperatures. Certain types of these chemicals are also present when fat from meat drips onto the hot coals and then transfers back up to the meat in the form of smoke.

Fortunately, HCA formation is fairly effectively prevented with just a few easy steps, including something many avid grillers do already: marinating meat to add a little extra flavor.

"Marinades have been shown to reduce the amount of HCAs, in some cases up to 92 to 99 percent," Felkner said. "Scientists aren't sure exactly what causes this effect. Vinegar, citrus juices, herbs, spices and olive oil all seem to contribute to the prevention of HCA formation."

Other grilling tips include trimming the fat off meat before cooking it and pre-cooking meats in the oven or microwave to reduce the amount of time needed on the hot grill, then briefly grilling for flavor. It is also a good idea to avoid letting flames touch the food directly, and remove all charred or burnt portions before eating.

"Studies have shown that people who ate beef medium-well or well-done had more than three times the risk of stomach cancer than those who ate beef rare or medium rare," Felkner added.

Although the relative cancer risk of grilling (or other environmental factors) is small compared to cancer risk due to exposure to tobacco, practicing safe grilling is one way to promote good health.

An additional risk associated with grilling is food-borne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million Americans get sick every year as a result of food-borne illness. Not all of these cases are related to grilling, but the barbeque season is a good time for a refresher course in handling food safely.

Lamar Grafft, UI safety specialist at the Institute for Rural and Environmental Health, said that the biggest problem associated with outdoor grilling is using the plate on which raw meat was stored to carry cooked meat back to the house.

"Meat is not usually contaminated with bacteria, and if it is, you kill the bacteria during the grilling process," Grafft said. "But if you carry it back to the house on the same plate you used to carry it to the grill, it could become re-contaminated."

Some grillers also make the mistake of cutting vegetables on the same cutting board as meat. Because the meat's juices can contaminate the vegetables, you should always use a separate cutting board or wash the board well between uses.

"Wash your hands before handling any food -- always," Grafft said. "Handle the food with an eye on sanitation."

Meat should not be thawed completely on the counter at room temperature, but in the refrigerator, and it should always be refrigerated soon after the meal is over.

"By following a few simple sanitation rules, summer can be a great time to enjoy the simple pleasure of grilling," Grafft said.

For more information about any cancer concern, contact the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center/Cancer Information Service at the University of Iowa toll free at 800-237-1225 or Visit online at or in person at 200 Hawkins Dr., 4802 John Pappajohn Pavilion, Iowa City, Iowa.

STORY SOURCE: Health Science Relations, University of Iowa, 5137 Westlawn Lawn, Iowa City, IA 52242

MEDIA CONTACT: Becky Soglin, 319-335-6660,; Writer: Brandy Huseman