Barbecue Meat a Safer Choice than Packaged Protein Foods

by Kaayla T. Daniel PhD, The Naughty Nutritionist

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)

  1. 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!

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

    • 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.”

  3. Pingback: The Roundup, Edition 7

  4. 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?

    • *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.

      • 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.

        • 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?

  5. 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!!

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Melissa Mary McAllister via Facebook June 11, 2013 at 10:59 am

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

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

    • 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.

  10. 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.


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