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Grilling food over charcoal can produce carcinogens, which have been linked to cancer under some conditions. So it follows that a debate over charcoal vs. propane grills for health has surfaced in recent years, with little consensus in science and medicine on the subject. The same could also be said for cooking with grills that use cast iron or stainless steel. Is one metal worse than another for grilling? Besides, how do medical professionals know if charcoal is better or worse than propane? It’s more about moderation and diversifying grilled food among healthy options.
Cancer risks aside, there are other health issues to be aware of when it comes to propane vs charcoal as well, and knowing the facts can help you choose the best grill when it comes to health and safety. If you’d like to learn about more grill types, read about gas vs. infrared grills.
If you’re really concerned about carcinogens, soaking your meat in lemon juice or vinegar before grilling has been shown to reduce carcinogen production by 90%.
The debate about which type of grill is healthiest usually revolves around carcinogens. Carcinogens have been linked to cancer risk in smoking, and some experts consider them at least a small risk when it comes to grilled food since grilling often involves smoke, which not only produces the smoky flavor we love; it’s also how carcinogens are produced in meats.
There are other small considerations when it comes to which grill style is healthier, however.
Carcinogens, in the form of heterocyclic amines and aromatic hydrocarbons, are produced when fat from the meat is exposed to high heat levels and broken down on a molecular level. This creates smoke, which imbues the cooking meat with carcinogenic material.
Experts say charcoal produces significantly more carcinogens than propane because it produces far more smoke. However, the majority of health professionals don’t consider the regular consumption of charcoal-grilled meats a major cancer risk.
A minor risk in grilling is the compounds that can sometimes be infused into meats from the fumes produced by propane, which can often create a spark on grills. Generally, such compounds won’t be present in high enough numbers to constitute a safety concern, but it’s one minor way in which charcoal has the advantage.
One more minor consideration when it comes to propane vs charcoal is the amount of fat and cholesterol meats retain when cooking with either kind of grill. Again, it’s a very minor consideration mostly because the difference is generally fairly nominal, but here, charcoal has the edge since its higher heat and exposed coals tend to pull more fat out of any meat.
Charcoal grills produce far higher levels of carcinogens in food than gas grills, though usually not in amounts that constitute a health risk for most people.
Is grilling bad for your health?
Generally speaking, grilling doesn’t present significant health risks, even if grilled meats are consumed fairly regularly. Most people would have to eat almost nothing but grilled meats in order for them to introduce a real health risk.
Is grilling with charcoal carcinogenic?
Though charcoal grilling does introduce some carcinogens into meat, it’s usually not at levels that would present a real cancer risk to most people. If you have medical conditions that make you more vulnerable to certain cancer risks, you may wish to consult a professional, but overall, it’s a minor concern.
Is there a type of grilling charcoal that’s healthier?
There isn’t a variety of charcoal that will reduce carcinogens in meat grilled with it, but one option if you want that classic smoke flavor that charcoal grilling gives food is to use a smoker instead of a grill. Smokers cook meat more slowly and at temperatures too low for fat to be broken down and produce carcinogens.
STAT: Well over half of all grills sold in the U.S. in 2021 were propane or natural gas grills. (source)