Your Guide to Healthy Grilling

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 09, 2022
5 min read

When the rich, savory smell of grilled meat wafts through the neighborhood, it's a sure sign that summer has arrived. Grilling isn't just a tradition, it also can be one of the healthiest ways to cook. There's no oil to add extra fat and calories; no heavy breading or frying to weigh grilled meat down.

Yet there are a few dangers lurking under that grill cover. Undercooked or improperly prepared meats can lead to a nasty case of food poisoning. Eating charred grilled meats too often could increase the risk for certain types of cancer.

Here's the beef on grill safety and tips on how to grill the right way, so you can enjoy cookouts without having to worry.

Each year, 48 million Americans are diagnosed with food poisoning, often from eating undercooked meat, poultry, and other animal products. Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella are regular residents in chicken, beef, and meats. If you don't cook meat to a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria or other germs, they can wind up in the intestinal tract and lead to symptoms like vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Usually food poisoning is mild, but it can get serious enough to send 128,000 people to the hospital each year. The CDC says 3,000 Americans die of food-borne illness each year. 

Preventing food poisoning starts in the preparation. Follow these food safety tips to ensure that grilled meat doesn't make you sick:

  • Separate food. Keep raw meat away from fruits, vegetables, and any other foods you're going to eat without cooking, to avoid bacterial cross-contamination. Cut raw meats on a different surface than other foods. Then wash every cutting board, plate, and utensil the raw meat touched with hot water and soap. Always use new serving plates and utensils for cooked food.
  • Clean up. Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before preparing food and after handling raw meat. Ask the same of anyone else who is going to be handling food.
  • Keep it cold. Store meat and poultry in the refrigerator until you're ready to grill it. If you have any meat left over from grilling, either keep it warm (140 F or hotter) or put it in the fridge within two hours (within 1 hour if the temperature outside is over 90 F). Freeze any ground meat or poultry that you don't use within 1-2 days.
  • Cook it through. Internal color isn't a reliable guide of whether or not it is cooked. To be certain that meat is cooked thoroughly, insert a food thermometer into the thickest part of the meat and keep cooking until it reaches these temperatures:
    • Whole chicken or turkey: 165 F
    • Chicken or turkey breasts (boneless): 165 F
    • Ground chicken or turkey: 165 F
    • Hamburgers, ground beef: 160 F
    • Beef roasts or steaks: Medium rare 145 F; medium 160 F; well done 170 F
    • Pork chops, tenderloins, or roasts: 145 F for at least 3 minutes of resting time
    • Ground pork and organ meats: 160 F
    • Fish: 145 F
    • Hot dogs: 165 F or steaming hot

Keep food covered when you're not eating it to prevent insects from making a snack of your meal. Bugs pick up germs on their feet and bodies and then deposit those germs wherever they land. If you see an insect crawling on your food, throw that piece away. That bug's last stop might have been a pile of garbage -- or worse.

You might be worried about grilling because you've heard that eating charred meat could increase the risk of getting certain cancers. When meat, poultry, pork, or fish is cooked over flames or very high temperatures, muscle proteins react with the heat to form compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs have been shown to cause DNA changes in cells that can lead to certain cancers.

As fat from the meat drips down onto the coals of the grill, it ignites and produces smoke, which also contains cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). When the smoke rises, it can deposit these chemicals on the meat. Exposure to this chemical is believed to be linked to certain cancers.

Studies have linked the consumption of grilled meat to an increased risk for colon, prostate, pancreatic, stomach, and breast cancers, especially if the meat is cooked to well done. One study found that eating charred meat on a regular basis increases the risk for pancreatic cancer by up to 60%.

Hot dogs and sausages pose their own cancer concern, in the form of chemical preservatives called nitrates and nitrites. These processed meats have been associated with a higher risk for prostate, pancreatic, and other cancers.

Experts say you don't need to shut down the grill permanently. Grilling is still a safe way to cook, provided that you do it in moderation and follow a few grill safety tips:

  • Keep it lean. Start with lean meat and cut off all the skin and visible fat before you grill. Not only will this make the meat healthier, but it also will limit flare-ups that can char the meat.
  • Microwave first. Putting meat in the microwave for 2 minutes before grilling could reduce HCAs by 90%. Pat the meat dry after microwaving so there's less juice to drip into the grill.
  • Cook the meat for longer at a lower temperature (under 325 degrees) by turning the gas down or letting the charcoal burn down to the embers.
  • Put tin foil under the meat and poke a few holes in it. This will reduce the amount of juice that drips into the grill, and will allow less smoke to reach the meat.
  • To lower the amount of heat and char on the meat, raise the grilling surface and move the charcoal briquettes to the sides of the grill.
  • Flip the meat about once every minute. Rapid turning will help prevent HCAs from forming.
  • Before you eat grilled meat, cut off any charred parts.
  • Add some veggies to the grill. Vegetables don't form HCAs, plus they're lower in fat and calories, so use more of them and less meat.
  • Clean your grill thoroughly after each use to get rid of any charred food that is stuck to the surface.