Hidden Toxins to Avoid for Healthy Grilling

Summer is easily identified when the wafting of meat on the grill drifts across your neighborhood. It seems as if weekends are made for grilling, with the perfect piece of meat sizzling on the grill being the prize of any respectable grill master.

For those of us trying to watch what we eat, healthy grilling can be a bit of a challenge, especially when it comes to avoiding toxins found in common cookout foods. Did you ever stop to think of what is actually in and even on that juicy burger?

The hidden toxins found on your plate may surprise you; but have no fear, healthy grilling can still be mastered!

Processed Meats: Group One Carcinogen

Perhaps you’re familiar already with some of the no-nos of processed meats (such as nitrates and nitrites), but the World Health Organization took it a step further and has recently deemed processed meats as a Group One carcinogen. This means that there is sufficient evidence that processed meats cause colorectal cancer in humans.

To put this in perspective, tobacco smoking and asbestos are also categorized as Group One carcinogens.

In the same evaluation conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), it was determined that red meat is a Group 2A carcinogen, classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” By IARC’s standards, red meat is considered any mammalian muscle meat.


  • Consider other sandwich fillings besides deli meat such as cream cheese, tomatoes, hummus, avocados, chicken, etc.
  • Select uncured bacon instead of cured to avoid harmful chemicals. It is important to note, though, that even the uncured bacon will be high in sodium and fats.
  • Rediscover a love for fish and chicken in order to limit your processed and red meats. Marinades, rubs, and sauces are a great way to keep variety in your healthier, leaner meats.

Grilling and Smoking: HCAs and PAHs

To the dismay of grill masters everywhere, more and more evidence is mounting that grilling and smoking meat form toxic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are mutagenic, causing DNA changes that may increase your risk of cancer.

PAHs are created from fat drippings causing flare-ups and are also formed during the process of smoking meats. The presence of HCAs in your grilling is relative to the temperature at which you are cooking, the “doneness” of the meat, and the amount of “char” found.


  • Marinate your meats. Marinades have been shown to drastically reduce the carcinogens formed on your meats during the grilling process.
  • Trim excess fat to reduce the chance of flare-ups and clean the grill after each use.
  • Instead of cooking to well-done status, consider a medium-rare option. If that doesn’t suit you, consider fun vegetable alternatives for healthier grilling. (Vegetables have not been found to form the same carcinogens as meat when grilled.)

Condiments: HFCS, Dyes, MSG

When it comes to good grilling, spreading on the perfect condiments to complement your meat can take your meal over the top—the right BBQ sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayo, relish. However, when it comes to condiments, these often hide toxic ingredients.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a common ingredient in ketchup and sauces and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

To get those bright and pretty colors found in many condiments, many food manufacturers use harmful dyes. Certain dyes have been known to cause ADHD, cancer, hormone imbalances, migraines, and more. Avoid any condiments you see using artificial colors or dyes (or actually, anything else “artificial” too).

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer found in many condiments. This has been known to cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and is even advised to be avoided by pregnant women.


  • Buy organic condiments, but still check the labels since not everything organic is truly free of harmful ingredients.
  • Create your own from-scratch condiments at home.
  • Consider fresh fruits and veggies as toppings, like onions, mangoes, peaches, avocados, and tomatoes. These fresh and simple alternatives to condiments still add juiciness and flavor without all the additives.

Side Dishes: Preservatives and Hormones

Mac and cheese, dips, salads, coleslaw, chips, rolls—there are so many delicious sides that accompany any great cookout. Hidden within these common dishes, though, are many preservatives and additives that can prove harmful to your health.

In addition to the additives mentioned above, many packaged or processed sides (or side ingredients) have BHA. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) is used as a preservative in foods but has been deemed a Category 2B carcinogen by the IARC, being “possibly” carcinogenic to humans.

For foods containing dairy products, you should be concerned with any growth hormones used such as rBGH or rBST. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) are artificial hormones used in cows to increase milk production. Concerns have been raised not only because of the harmful side effects seen in cows treated with these hormones, but also because of the increased levels of IGF-1 found in this hormone-treated milk, an insulin-like growth factor that has possible links to certain cancers.


  • Shop the “outside” aisles of the grocery store. This means to focus on the fresh ingredients for sides, instead of the canned, boxed, and processed items typically found near the middle of the stores.
  • Always, always read your labels. Do your research ahead of time to know what to avoid, and inspect each ingredient label carefully. A great rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!
  • Utilize healthier ingredients like avocados instead of mayo, coconut oil instead of vegetable oil, quinoa instead of rice, 100% whole wheat instead of white flour, etc.

With all this said, you should not live your life in fear of every known cause of every known disease. The best that you can do is educate yourself on the latest research and findings, stay in touch with your body and get regular physicals, and do the best that you can when it comes to feeding your family. Food is fuel for life, and it should not become something you’re scared of. Host your cookouts, do your best attempt at healthy grilling, and enjoy your meals with those you love!

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