By Chef Lauren Cox, Closer To Your Food

May is National BBQ month, and for many of us, BBQ’ing represents a shift in seasons and a warm welcome to the summer days ahead. In many ways, we can take a page from natural food author Michael Pollan’s book, and argue that cooking with fire is what really differentiates us as humans.Our ancestors discovered that harnessing the flame and using it to cook food made it more edible, thus making us distinctly human. Cooking over a flame, however, has come under fire (pun intended) lately for a few reasons, but most notably for the production and consumption of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

What are HCAs?

HCAs are chemicals created when muscle proteins from animals are cooked at high heat temperatures. HCAs are mutagenic, which means they can cause changes in your DNA that may cause cancer,2 hence they are classified as a carcinogen.

How Do I Avoid HCAs?

In high enough temperatures, the amino acids, creatine and sugars in meat are what form HCAs. Accordingly, there are a few rules of thumb to follow if you still want to enjoy cooking over an open flame without the damaging effects:

  • Eat leaner meats. The more fat that is in the meat, the more that drips into the flames as it cooks and causes a flare. This creates polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), another carcinogen that adheres back to the meat. Look for leaner cuts of meat, or if you are using a fatty meat, try trimming off any excess and reserve it for other cooking methods.3
  • Eat more plants. Plants do not contain the same compounds as meat and creatine, thus the theoretical char formed on them during high-heat cooking such as grilling is less damaging. Just as a general rule of thumb, those of us who can be attracted to a meat-centered diet really should be eating more plants to help bridge nutrition gaps in our diets.
  • From a chef’s point of view, marinating is common sense as it makes the meat juicier and more flavorful. From a nutrition point of view, marinating can actually help prevent the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Studies show that most types of marinades, especially acidic and herb-heavy ones, provide the most protection – up to a nearly 99% reduction in HCAs.4
  • Keep it clean. Clean and season your grill before you use it and clean it very well when you are done. To season your grill, lightly brush the grill with healthy oil with a high smoke point, such as rice bran oil, to avoid unnecessary charring. The build-up of that char is – you guessed it – HCAs.
  • Cool it down. Lower and slower is the key here, so try using lower heat briquettes. Or, once your grill is nice and hot, reduce the heat and keep it under medium.
  • Find a platform. Avoid direct flame contact by using a barrier. The jury is still out on using tin foil, but we suggest items that actually add flavor such as a Himalayan salt brick or cedar planks.

The takeaway? Grill smart. Personally, I could not give up cooking over an open flame and the joys it brings to me, but I can give up many of the things that contribute to the formation of HCAs. We really want to make a difference in the way food nourishes you and sustains your long-term health, so try a few of these pointers this grilling season.

Our Favorite Marinades

Cognac and Currant (for wild fowl like quail or turkey)

¼ cup good quality cognac
½ cup healthy oil of choice (except coconut because of its low smoke point)
¼ cup dried red or black currants
2-4 leaves sage, chopped
4-6 sprigs thyme
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste


Lemon and Sea Salt (for poultry and light fish)

1 cup lemon juice
½ cup thinly sliced lemons
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup olive oil
4-6 sprigs thyme
2-4 sprigs rosemary
1 tablespoon fleur de sel
Fresh cracked pepper to taste


Kona Coffee (for red game meat like bison and elk)

¼ cup fine Kona coffee grounds
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ cup healthy oil of choice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh ginger
¼ cup red table wine
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste


Greens and Chili (for red meats)

1 cup parsley, chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup healthy oil of choice
1 tablespoon chili flakes



  1. Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. New York: The Penguin Press. 2013.
  1. Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Science 2004; 95(4):290–299.

Closer to Your Food is a wellness blog focused on eating and cooking for health and sustainability with recipes and lifestyle tips formulated around a plant-based diet and home-grown local foods. Chef Lauren Cox holds a B.A. from the le Cordon Bleu in Culinary Management with over 8 years of fine dining experience in private dining, catering and Michelan star restaurants. For more information, please visit and follow Closer to Your Food on Twitter and Facebook @Closer2YourFood. 

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.