Grillmasters Get a Food Safety Lesson

Two Sides of Grilled Food

Grilled foods are usually considered healthy because they are cooked without fat. For instance, a typical 4-ounce chicken breast cooked on the grill contains about 5 grams of fat, while a 4-ounce serving of homemade fried chicken contains about 10 grams of fat.

When it comes to preparing food, grilling is a healthier option. Over the past several years, there have been concerns about grilling increasing your risk of getting certain cancers. Compounds from grilling, called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are the result of cooking meats on high heat. It is not clear at this time if either of these compounds increase your cancer risk. Detailed questionnaires by health officials suggest this is the case, but no evidence proves this occurs outside of controlled animal studies.

Healthy Grilling

Because there is no established link between grilling and cancer risk, no organization has outlined any guidelines for safe grilling. That doesn't mean that you can't take matters into your own hands. There are steps that you can take to lower your risk of these potentially cancer-causing chemicals:

  • Trim the fat —PAHs are formed when fat drips onto hot coals. Flames and smoke redeposit PAHs onto the food. To minimize the PAHs from forming, trim as much fat as you can from the meat.
  • Marinate —HCAs are produced when meat is grilled or cooked at high temperatures causing charring. Some studies suggest that marinating meat before grilling may reduce the formation of HCAs.
  • Precook —Pop the meat in the microwave to partially cook it before grilling.
  • Use smaller cuts of meat —Smaller cuts take less time to grill.
  • Remove charred parts —After grilling, cut off any charred parts from the meat.
  • Grill other foods —Add variety to your meals by grilling fruits and vegetables instead of meat. Vegetables do not produce HCAs.

Safe Grilling

Follow these safe food preparation guidelines during your next grilling adventure:

  • Frequently wash your hands and surfaces —This can prevent cross-contamination of bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) infection.
  • Use separate plates —Use one cutting board for raw meats and a clean one for other foods in order to reduce bacteria crossover. Be sure to use separate plates, utensils, and platters for raw and cooked foods. For instance, if the raw steaks are carried out on a platter and tongs are used for placing them on the grill, you must use a new clean platter and tongs for taking the cooked steaks off the grill when they are done.
  • Keep the temperatures appropriate —Meats should be refrigerated while marinating and up to the point of being cooked. When the grilling starts, be sure the internal temperature of meats is appropriate to kill bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to check internal temperatures. Leftovers should be refrigerated immediately and tossed if left out more than 1 hour in hot temperatures.

Here are some minimum safe food internal temperatures:

Food Temperature
Cooked whole poultry 165°F
Cooked chicken breasts 165°F
Cooked ground meat 160°F
Cooked beef, veal, lamb roasts, and chops 145°-160°F
All cuts of cooked pork 145°F

Make sure that you allow the meat to rest for a minimum of 3 minutes after you remove it from the grill. This will help to seal the juices in.

A Simple Meal on the Grill

With the grilling basics all nailed down, try this great meal mainly cooked on the grill in less than 1 hour.

Marinated Flank Steak

Start with 1-2 pounds of flank steak marinated in a commercial marinade. Or, try your own marinade by mixing together the following ingredients:

Ingredients Measurements
Cooking oil 1/3 cup
Soy sauce 1/3 cup
Red wine vinegar 1/3 cup
Lemon juice 2 tablespoons
Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon
Dry mustard 1 teaspoon
Garlic 2 cloves
Pepper 1/4 teaspoon

Place the mixture in a large plastic bag, seal, and coat all sides of the meat. Place in refrigerator and marinate for at least 1 hour or overnight. Cook at least 5 minutes on each side or to degree of doneness desired. Cut steak diagonally across into thin slices before serving.

Corn on the Cob

Take silk (husk) off corn. Place corn cobs on a sheet of heavy foil. Top with several pats of butter and 3 tablespoons water. Wrap corn in foil and seal foil tightly at top to keep butter and moisture in while cooking. Heat on grill for at least 30 minutes or until tender.

Warm Garlic Bread

Take a loaf of Italian or French bread and slice at 1-inch intervals. Warm 1/8 cup butter and mix with 1/8 cup olive oil; mix with several cloves of minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon oregano, and 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Spread mixture on bread slices. Place loaf of bread on heavy foil and seal ends to keep in moisture. Heat for about 20 minutes.

Grilled Fruit Kabobs

Ingredients Measurements
Melted butter 1/4 cup
Brown sugar 2 tablespoons
Fresh lime for grated lime rind and lime juice 1 fresh lime
Cinnamon 1 teaspoon

Use any fresh fruit cut into one-inch pieces such as pineapple, apples, nectarines, melon, bananas, or large whole strawberries. In a small bowl, stir together melted butter or margarine, brown sugar, grated lime rind, lime juice, and cinnamon until sugar is dissolved. Thread fruit alternately onto metal skewers. Brush kabobs with butter or margarine mixture and place on barbecue grill. Grill for 6-8 minutes, turning frequently and brushing generously with butter mixture, until the fruit starts to brown and is heated through.


Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Food Safety—US Department of Health and Human Services


Dietitians of Canada


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Published May 20, 2013. Accessed May 30, 2017.
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Chemicals in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
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Updated October 19, 2015. Accessed May 30, 2017.
Safe minimum cooking temperatures. Food Safety website. Available at:
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Accessed May 30, 2017.
Salmon CP, Knize MG, Felton JS. Effects of marinating on heterocyclic amine carcinogen formation in grilled chicken. Food Chem Toxicol. 1997;35:(5)433-441.
Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 7/10/2015

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