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dnaMD- Carcinogens in Your Burgers?

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Now that we have firmly entered warm weather, we have also entered grilling season! And while grilling can be a great way to avoid fried, processed foods, grilling also comes with some caveats.

Grilling your meats has been linked to the development of multiple carcinogens. Luckily, there are ways to prevent your grilled meats from turning into toxic patties!

carcinogens, grilling, meat, burgers,

Carcinogens in my grilled meat?

Yep, you read that correctly. Cooking meat at high temperatures, especially over an open flame, has been linked to two different carcinogens:

  • Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)

  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

HCAs and PAHs contaminate your grilled meat in two different processes. Heterocyclic Amines form when any muscle meat (animal skin as opposed to organ meat) is cooked at very high temperatures. HCAs are the result of the amino acids, sugars, and creatine or creatinine in meat reacting to high temperatures. The longer you cook your meat at high temperatures, the more HCAs. Luckily, the signs of HCAs developing on your meat are pretty easy to spot- if you see grill or char marks, your meat likely has HCAs.

The National Institute of Health, Department of Health and Human Services have included HCAs on its “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” list. This is due to the numerous animal studies on HCAs. When the carcinogen was introduced into a rodent’s diet, they developed cancers in the colon, breast, prostate, and other organs.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are slightly different from HCAs. PAHs are produced when fat (from a cut of grilling meat) hits an open flame. The chemical then rises in the smoke to cling to the meat. They can also form directly on the meat when it is charred.

Researchers are still trying to determine if the cancerous effects of HCAs and PAHs apply to humans as well. However, epidemiologic studies have found links between well-done, fried, or barbecued meats and an increase of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. Moreover, a 2010 research review found that most studies on the topic revealed high consumption of thoroughly cooked meat and high exposure to HCAs and PAHs may increase the risk of human cancer.

Genetic component:

Unfortunately, some people contain genetic variations that make them more vulnerable to carcinogens and other toxins. For those individuals, they must avoid eating foods high in carcinogens due to genotypes that slow the removal of harmful compounds by the liver and other tissues. This process is also known as detoxification.

The most studied gene impacting the detoxification process is the NAT2 gene. NAT2 stands for human arylamine N-transferase 2. This gene is responsible for the creation of an enzyme that greatly influences the detoxification process. NAT2 is also directly responsible for the removal of HCAs from the body. NAT2 will deactivate the toxic effects of HCAs and also assist in the removal of the carcinogen.

Depending on your NAT2 genotype, the rate of your detoxification process can range from fast to slow.

  • Those with GG genotypes are fast detoxifiers.

  • Those with GA genotypes are medium detoxifiers.

  • Those with AA genotypes are slow detoxifiers.

Those with slow or medium detoxification rates are more susceptible to DNA and cell damage caused by HCAs. Slow detoxifiers have also been found to have a higher risk of oesophageal and lung cancer when in the presence of airborne toxins. Slow or medium detoxifiers should be very cautious in how they cook and prepare their grilled meats to avoid unnecessary exposure to toxins that their body cannot properly get rid of.

Preventing carcinogens:

Luckily, there are numerous ways to lower your exposure to HCAs and PAHs without sacrificing your grilled meats:

  • Reduce PAHs by removing the skin and trimming fat off of a cut of meat. This will reduce the amount of fat dripping into the flame. Choosing a light, lean piece of meat over dark meat will also limit fat.

  • Don’t place your meat directly over the flame.

  • Steam meat (for 2-5 minutes) or microwave (60-90 seconds) immediately before grilling to release juices that could fall onto the flame. This will also reduce the amount of PAHs in your meat. Several studies have found this process to completely eliminate PAHs.

  • Grill foods on aluminum foil or a cedar plan. Having a surface beneath your cooking meat will prevent fat from dripping into the flame below- reducing the amount of PAHs.

  • Avoid cooking your food too much. Overcooking food will result in more carcinogens.

  • Cook your meat on low for longer periods of time. The lack of exposure to a very hot flame will prevent the development of HCAs.

  • Be sure to frequently flip your food to prevent overcooking on one side and use a thermometer to determine exactly when your meat is cooked.

  • Drink beer as you BBQ! One study found that the yeast in beer can prevent the harmful effects of carcinogens in meat. Dark and stout beers are more effective than paler beers.

  • Marinate your meat!

Anti-carcinogen marinade:

Interestingly, many studies have demonstrated the powerful effects of marinades on preventing the development of PAHs and HCAs.

  • A 2006 study by Kansas State University found that cooking rosemary with beef reduced the number of carcinogens by up to 77%. Even placing rosemary on top of a beef patty or adding a drop or two of rosemary oil to your marinade will lower carcinogen content.

    • Other herbs like basil, mint, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, and thyme also have similar effects on the prevention of HCA development.

  • A 2003 Swedish study found that beef cooked in olive oil produced fewer HCAs than any other type of oil. This means any marinade with olive oil will result in fewer HCAs and PAHs in your meat.

  • A 1999 study demonstrated that beef marinated overnight in teriyaki sauce or Tumeric-garlic sauce had a 60% lower HCA level than un-marinated meat. In contrast, a traditional BBQ sauce containing sugar and tomato tripled HCA levels in the meat. This is likely due to the introduction of more sugar.

  • A 2007 study reported that using a marinade of 31.2% onion, 28.6% garlic, and 14.6% lemon juice reduced carcinogen production by nearly 70%. According to these results, the ideal marinade should have one part lemon and two parts each of onion and garlic.

  • A 2008 paper found that marinating meat in beer and wine before pan-frying a streak reduced HCA content. Although beer accounted for a greater decrease in beef, red wine marinades decreased HCA formation in fried chicken breasts by 88%.

  • One study found that adding vitamin E directly to ground beef resulted in a 70% decrease in HCA production. The same result was found when vitamin E was added to patty surfaces before frying.

The ingredients mentioned above have a neutralizing effect on HCA and PAH development because of their high antioxidant content. Antioxidants and phenolic compounds will block HCAs before they even begin to form during the cooking process. As a result, if you marinate your meat with several of the above ingredients, you will greatly reduce your exposure to carcinogens in your grilled meats.

Marinade recipes like the ones below will result in carcinogen-free meats!

Lemon Rosemary Marinade by Eazy Peazy Mealz:


  • 1 lemon juice and zest

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 2 garlic cloves minced

  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


  • Zest a whole lemon, then juice it.

  • Add all ingredients to a jar or bowl.

  • Shake or whisk together.

  • Pour over chicken or pork in a container or zip-lock bag.

  • Marinate for 30 mins - 2 hours for chicken breasts, 4-12 hours for bone-in, skin-on cuts of chicken. And 2-10 hours for pork.

Red Wine Marinade by the Spruce Eats:


  • 1 cup red wine

  • 3/4 cup olive oil

  • 5 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 tablespoons diced onion

  • 2 to 3 sprigs fresh rosemary

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

  • 1 teaspoon pepper

  • 2 to 3 (6-ounce) steaks


  • Gather the ingredients.

  • Combine the red wine, olive oil, garlic cloves, onion, rosemary, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a bowl, and then pour the mix into a large plastic zip-top bag.

  • Add the steaks and seal the bag. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours, turning the bag several times to mix the marinade.

  • Prepare the steaks according to your preference and discard the rest of the marinade.

Lemon Basil Chicken by Carls Bad Cravings:


  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice approx. 1 lemon

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons honey

  • 1/2 cup loosely packed basil, minced or 1 TBS dried

  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or ¾ tsp garlic powder

  • 1/2 tsp EACH onion powder, dried parsley, salt

  • 1/4 tsp EACH pepper, dried oregano ground mustard, red pepper flakes


  • Whisk marinade ingredients together

  • Add to chicken

  • Marinate chicken for 4-12 hours

  • Flip bag over occasionally

During your summer cookouts, we hope you take these suggestions and put them into action! No one should ever get cancer because of too many fun summer BBQs. In regards to what you put on the grill, the only way to truly know what diet is best for you is through genomic testing.

Through DNA testing, we can precisely identify the patterns and imbalances of your unique metabolism and use nutrients to suppress the expression of disease, illness, and other unhealthy patterns. If you're interested in genomic testing, click here to learn more! Or contact our office at

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!