Barbecue Meat a Safer Choice than Packaged Protein Foods

by Kaayla T. Daniel The Naughty NutritionistComments: 30

barbecue meat vs veggie burgers

It’s barbecue time, and scare stories are already in the news about the dangers of cooking meat, fish and poultry on the grill. Most of those warnings concern the formation of carcinogens and mutagens known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) during the grilling process.

While it’s probably wise to enjoy barbecue meat such as char-broiled steaks and blackened catfish only as an occasional special treat, these news reports leave out a very important fact.

The greatest danger from heterocyclic amines (HCAs) is not from barbecue meat or grilled steaks.  Rather, it is from processed and packaged protein foods including veggie burgers and other approxi-meats.

Industrially processed proteins derived from soy, corn, wheat and other grains contain plenty of HCAs, and the levels only increase with the addition of flavor enhancing soy sauces and marinades.

It’s myth that HCAs are mostly found in fried or grilled beef, poultry and fish. The truth is that HCAs are formed in any pyrolyzed, protein-rich food. For example, soy protein plus sugar subjected to high heat and pressure at the processing plant ends up with potent mutagens such as 2-amino-9H-pyrido (2,3-b) indole and 2-amino-3-methyl-9H-pyrido (2,3-b) indole.

All commercial soy sauces come right out of the bottle with HCAs known as 1-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydrobeta-carboline-3-carboxylic acid (MTCCA). When we add sugar to soy sauce — a combination found ready made in many marinades and barbecue sauces — even more heterocyclic amines are formed.

The beta carbolines found in commercial ketchups and fish sauces also spur the formation of additional HCAs.

In brief, the higher the heat and pressure and the longer the duration, the more HCAs are formed. Combine with sauces and other ingredients high in HCAs, heat again and even more are formed.

Because modern plant protein products such as textured vegetable protein (TVP) and soy protein isolate (SPI) may undergo three or more heat treatments before they reach the supermarket or health food store, they can carry high levels of HCAs. These industrially processed foods are likely to contain much higher levels of HCAs than real foods prepared at home.

The more types of HCAs found in a given product or meal, the greater the risk. As T. Sugimura of the National Cancer Center Research Institute in Tokyo puts it:

“Heterocyclic amines are probably involved in the development of human cancer in the presence of other carcinogens, tumor promoters and factors stimulating cancer progression. HCAs most affect the liver, but lung and stomach tumors, lymphomas, leukemias and myocardial lesions also occur.”

Should we be worried about HCAs?

The short answer is “yes.”

HCAs appear naturally in the body, but never in the quantities provided by today’s overly — and repeatedly — heated food products. In animal studies, mutagenic HCAs are most likely to turn carcinogenic when eaten regularly rather than sporadically. HCAs are also most likely to trigger human cancer in the presence of other carcinogens. Thus the consistent presence of nitrosamines, MSG and HCAs in heavily processed plant protein foods poses a triple threat.

To date most of the news stories on HCAs has centered on grilled and barbecue meat, fish and poultry. Grilled tempeh and tofu would probably gain some HCAs this way as well.

The real danger though is not from putting traditional real foods such as meat, poultry, fish, tempeh or tofu on the barbie, but eating industrially processed plant proteins. HCAs do pose health risks, but most are formed at the processing plant, not in the home kitchen or on the patio.

About the Author

dr kaayla danielKaayla T. Daniel, PhD, is the author of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food endorsed by leading health experts, including Drs Joseph Mercola, Larry Dossey, Kilmer S. McCully, Russell Blaylock and Doris J. Rapp.

Kaayla has been a guest on The Dr.Oz Show, PBS Healing Quest, NPR’s People’s Pharmacy, and many other shows.

Kaayla  is known as The Naughty Nutritionist because of her ability to outrageously and humorously debunk nutritional myths. You can find her on Facebook at and subscribe to her edu-taining blog at


For an extensive discussion of the research on HCAs in soy and other highly processed industrial foods and a list of citations, read Chapter 11 of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food (New Trends, 2005).

Comments (30)

  • Maryann Lang via Facebook

    You had me worried, for a moment I thought you were promoting tofu!

    July 28th, 2014 7:55 am Reply
  • Maurice Douglas via Facebook

    It defeats the purpose to be a vegan or a vegetarian and eat vegetarian BEEF…vegetarian HAM…vegetarian BACON. Just go eat a burger and stop playing smh

    July 28th, 2014 3:38 am Reply
  • Melanie H Charron via Facebook

    I have read several articles stating that marinating meats before grilling cuts down on many of the carcinogenic chemicals that are produced. Interestingly enough, most people who grill will find the fact that dark the beers were one of the best things to use. I also noted that basically ANY marinade was better than nothing. The article also mentioned not to eat the burnt parts as this was the place where most of the carcinogens are located. Happy grilling!

    July 27th, 2014 11:10 pm Reply
  • Wade Schoenemann via Facebook

    especially if it’s verified 100% grass-fed beef

    July 27th, 2014 10:01 pm Reply
  • chloe

    Great post. Once again a reminder that eating whole foods is the most important principle to follow. Are grilled vegetable safe?

    June 14th, 2013 1:57 pm Reply
    • rachel

      Chloe, I just googled “Does grilling vegetables form HCAs?” I’m seeing a bunch of results which say “No.” I haven’t found any result that says “Yes.”

      June 16th, 2013 9:11 pm Reply
  • Jennifer Greene via Facebook

    But Sarah, I’m skeptical. Dr. Daniel didn’t provide any evidence (unless you buy her book). And the evidence I COULD find online (like this: says that in a head-to-head contest with beef and pork, “packaged [veggie] protein food” (tempeh burger) was clearly safer, generating zero HCA when fried.

    June 13th, 2013 1:18 pm Reply
    • woly

      Good to see I wasnt the only one who thought this!

      June 14th, 2013 8:30 pm Reply
  • Pingback: The Roundup, Edition 7

  • joette calabrese

    as always, Kaayla gives us the info that is most pertinent; that life requires choices and educating ourselves before making them is a responsibility that lies in our hands only.

    i’ve made mine. tonight is grass fed lamb chops, sauerkraut and a glass of organic wine. ‘anyone care to join me?

    June 13th, 2013 8:13 am Reply
  • Sandi

    Scary stuff, right?!
    Fresh food first :)

    June 12th, 2013 4:53 pm Reply
  • foodreporter

    I look for peer-reviewed science to back up statements like the ones presented in this piece. Unfortunately, Dr. Daniel has not provided any such references. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    Here’s some evidence:

    June 12th, 2013 9:04 am Reply
    • foodreporter

      *Other than saying there are citations contained within her own book (which is available for $20.99).
      I note that Dr. Daniel’s book was published in 2005, and the research findings I found are more recent than that.

      June 12th, 2013 9:13 am Reply
      • Helen T

        Foodreporter, it depends on who is doing the research. So many institutions now are discredited. Hardly anyone posting here currently believes research rubberstamped from the CDC or FDA. I look to trustworthy sources and the research they present,
        like Dr. Daniel.

        June 14th, 2013 8:06 am Reply
        • woly

          So youre saying that Dr Daniel is correct and any peer reviewed evidence to the contrary is some sort of conspiracy? Hmm. I assume you will say that statement is wrong so I ask, what type of evidence would convince you that this article is incorrect?

          June 14th, 2013 8:29 pm Reply
  • Beeb

    My thoughts are as long as you keep your BBQ clean in between each cook and try not to burn your food and of course that the food you are cooking is fresh and not processed and organic if poss then all should be well! The other thing to consider is any oil you might use. Butter, Olive oil and Coconut oil are all good…Coconut oil will allow higher temperatures and there are brands that are tasteless which helps as we don’t always want the coconut flavour with everything!
    Now i’m feeling hungry!!

    June 12th, 2013 6:51 am Reply
  • thehealthyhomeeconomist via Facebook

    FYI .. excellent comment from Stanley Fishman, author of Tender Grassfed Meat on this blog post … on how to grill totally safely. Must read if you love to grill out (which I most certainly do :))

    June 11th, 2013 4:58 pm Reply
    • Tracey

      So would this mean barbecuing with propane might technically be safer than charcoal since I could probably control the flame more?

      June 11th, 2013 7:43 pm Reply
  • Cyndi

    We cooked over fires for thousands of years and survived it somehow.

    June 11th, 2013 3:17 pm Reply
  • Heather

    What about Bragg’s Liquid Aminos as a Soy Sauce substitute? It was recommended to me, but since it is still a soy product, I’m a little uncomfortable with it.

    June 11th, 2013 1:05 pm Reply
  • Stanley Fishman

    If you do not barbecue over direct high heat, meaning that the meat is never directly over the heat source, HCAs will not be formed in your barbecued meat. Our ancestors did not have cancer epidemics and they cooked in front of fires, not over them, unless the meat was up so high that it never got scorched.

    And you do not need grill marks or high heat to have great steaks, if you are cooking grassfed meat. I never barbecue steaks directly over the heat source, and they always turn out great.

    June 11th, 2013 11:57 am Reply
  • Claudine Kelly Herlihy via Facebook

    OH NO! Don’t eat…at all!

    June 11th, 2013 11:43 am Reply
  • Melissa Mary McAllister via Facebook

    That’s why it’s important to balance it out with a variety of antioxidants from fruit and veggies.

    June 11th, 2013 10:59 am Reply
  • Anne Harvey via Facebook

    Good info. Thanks for sharing.

    June 11th, 2013 10:43 am Reply
  • Katlin Albus via Facebook

    Everything is bad for you. Everything causes cancer. Pick your poison.

    June 11th, 2013 10:37 am Reply
  • Tracey

    We are looking into getting a new barbecue. Is there any health related differences between cooking on a propane barbie vs. a charcoal one?

    June 11th, 2013 10:37 am Reply
  • Susie Hagemeister via Facebook

    It seems hard to believe that this ancient form of cooking could be that harmful. I’m sure eating nutrient dense foods along with it help counter act the bad. Just seems like common sense.

    June 11th, 2013 10:34 am Reply
    • Dave K

      I agree, cancer is a modern disease. The ancient art of cooking meat over a wood fire is probably not the cause of any of any of todays epidemics.

      June 11th, 2013 1:46 pm Reply
  • Cindy

    Just have to mention here that the term ‘blackened’ when referring to catfish or any other dish, is about spices, not about burning the food. Char broiling my blacken the edges of the steak, but blackened is spice.

    June 11th, 2013 8:31 am Reply

Leave a Comment