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Grilling meat causes cancer

What you may have heard

Eating charred or burnt meat can increase your risk of cancer.

What science tells us

Charring or burning meat, poultry, or fish over high temperatures causes heterocyclic amines (HCAs) to form. Meat that is cooked above 300 ºF and for a long period of time causes HCAs to form (NCI).

Epidemiological Evidence

HCAs can cause genetic damage and increase a person’s risk of stomach and colorectal cancers (Cedars-Sinai). Several epidemiological studies have shown a positive correlation between HCAs and cancer risk (Sugimura). Other animal studies have also shown the carcinogenicity of HCAs with breast, colon, and prostate cancer development in rodents (Sugimura).

Laboratory Evidence/Supporting Evidence

The laboratory evidence for HCAs in cancer is consistent with that of the epidemiological evidence.

IARC Carcinogen Classification: Group 2A/2B (possibly/probably carcinogenic to humans: various Heterocyclic amines – HCAs)

How to reduce your risk

To reduce your risk of colorectal cancer, avoid processed meats, limit red meat, and swap plants for meats. Avoid charring or burning meat, poultry, or fish (MD Anderson). Here are some tips for reducing the amount of charred or burnt material that sticks to your food:

  • Lightly oil the grill
  • Lower the temperature (either by spreading the coals evenly or increase the distance between your food and the coals)
  • Scrub the grill after each use
  • Use a marinade: This helps reduce HCA formation by as much as 96% (MD Anderson)
  • Trim fat from the meat. This can reduce exposure to cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that form when the fat drips onto the heat source. The PAH fills the smoke that coats and enters your food. Choosing lean cuts can decrease your exposure when grilling.

Bottom line

Grilling at high heat and eating charred meat, poultry, or fish can increase risk of colorectal cancer. To decrease your risk, swap plants for these meats, or avoid charring or burning meat, poultry, or fish.

MD Anderson: Healthier grilling
Cedars-Sinai: Healthy grilling


June 25, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022