Risks of Grilling Meat

Cooking at high temperatures may make inflammation worse.

Updated by Linda Rath | June 16, 2023

Grilled meat is so baked into American food culture that to suggest it might be linked to cancer and other chronic illnesses seems unthinkable. Yet every summer, the American Society for Cancer Research warns consumers about two potentially carcinogenic compounds in grilled protein — a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are produced when fat drips into the grill grate then combusts, bathing the meat in carcinogenic smoke. Heterocyclic amines are in the grill marks that appear when protein interacts with heat. Bacon, sausages and other meats that have added nitrates increase cancer risk, no matter how they’re cooked.

Advanced Glycation End Products

Grilling isn’t the only problem. Twenty years ago, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City discovered that frying, roasting or searing meat at high temperatures produces compounds called advanced glycation end (AGEs) products. Meat and meat fat are already rich in these compounds, and high-temperature dry cooking produces more of them — as much as 10 to 100 times more, according to the researchers.

They found that AGEs were exceptionally inflammatory and blamed them for what they called an “epidemic” of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Since then, AGEs have been linked to other serious health conditions, including kidney failure, Alzheimer’s disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, hormonal disturbances in people born female, aging and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

AGEs develop naturally when fats or proteins combine with sugar in your bloodstream, a process known as glycation. But the lion’s share comes from food. And not just from meat; full-fat dairy products, including butter, cream and some kinds of cheese, are loaded with AGEs, as are roasted nuts.

What’s Your Daily AGE Intake?

AGEs are measured in kilounits per liter or kU/l. Fifteen thousand kU/l a day is considered high, although it’s the norm for many Americans. Depending on your food choices, it doesn’t take much to reach or exceed that mark. For example, a single broiled hot dog contains a whopping 10,143 kU/l. A Big Mac isn’t far behind at 7,801 kU/l. Throw in 3 ounces of grilled chicken for dinner (5,280 kU/l) and you’re way over the top — and that’s not counting a teaspoon of butter on your baked potato (1,167 kU/l).

Your body is equipped to eliminate AGEs, mainly through your kidneys. But when it can’t eliminate them fast enough or too many build up, they accumulate and damage tissues throughout the body. Among many other things, AGEs can cause inflammation and joint destruction in RA patients.

What You Can Do

Inflammatory AGEs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines aren’t inevitable, and you don’t have to give up the occasional burger for your health’s sake. Here’s how to reduce your risk:

  • Eat more fruits, veggies and whole grains. These foods contain almost no AGEs, and cooking them with high heat doesn’t create more or make them more dangerous. Added bonus: Most fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which protect against cancer and the complex inflammatory chain reaction that triggers RA. Instead of meat, try grilling zucchini and onions and, if you can handle them, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
  • Substitute more chicken and fish for red meat. All meat has AGEs that increase exponentially with high heat but chicken and fish have less than pork, beef and lamb.
  • Marinate meat in a sauce that contains lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar or wine for at least 30 minutes before grilling. This can cut the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines in half, reducing more carcinogens than simply lowering the cooking temperature.
  • Trim visible fat from meat, avoid cooking directly over coals and cut off charred sections before serving.
  • Experiment with different cooking methods, such as braising, poaching or steaming. Crock pot and sous vide cooking are especially good choices. All can dramatically slash AGE levels, often from nearly 6,000 uL/l to 1,000 uL/l.
  • Limit processed foods. Most have been heated to extend shelf life and are loaded with AGEs. Even infant formulas, which are processed at very high heat, contain large amounts of AGEs that some studies have linked to allergies and inflammatory bowel disease in kids.

Stay in the Know. Live in the Yes.

Get involved with the arthritis community. Tell us a little about yourself and, based on your interests, you’ll receive emails packed with the latest information and resources to live your best life and connect with others.