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Is Barbecued Chicken Bad For You?

Also Known As: BBQ chicken



Short answer

Grilling chicken at high temperatures can lead to the formation of carcinogenic compounds like HCAs, PAHs, and AGEs, posing health risks if consumed frequently and in large quantities. Occasional grilled chicken as part of a balanced diet, when prepared with care to minimize the formation of harmful compounds, may not significantly impact health. Being mindful of hidden sugars and sodium in marinades and sauces is also important. Adopt alternative cooking methods and practices such as marinating, avoiding charring, and grilling vegetables to reduce these risks.



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Long answer

Potential Health Risks of High-Temperature Grilling

Grilling meat at high temperatures, including chicken, has been studied for its potential health risks. When meat is cooked using high-heat methods, such as barbecuing, it can lead to the formation of harmful compounds that could pose health risks if consumed in excessive amounts over time. Here are some of the key compounds of concern and their potential effects on health:

  • Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatine react at high temperatures. Research has shown that these compounds can be mutagenic—that is, they can cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): PAHs are created when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open flame drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that can adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs have also been identified as potentially carcinogenic to humans.

It's not just the formation of HCAs and PAHs that is concerning for health professionals. High-temperature cooking can also lead to other chemical reactions that might be harmful:

  • Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs): AGEs are formed when proteins or fats combine with sugars in the bloodstream. While they naturally occur in uncooked animal-derived foods and our body, their levels can increase significantly in foods that have been high-heat processed. These compounds have been associated with an increased risk of various diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.

The potential health risks associated with high-temperature grilling are not limited to the formation of harmful compounds. Consuming well-done meat has also been linked to increased risks:

  • Certain studies suggest a correlation between consumption of well-done meat and various types of cancer, such as pancreatic, colon, and prostate cancer.
  • The high heat from grilling can cause proteins in the chicken to denature, leading to changes in their structure that can make them more difficult to digest, and in rare cases might contribute to food allergies.

However, the degree of risk is affected by frequency and portion size. Occasional consumption of barbecued chicken or other high-temperature grilled meats is less likely to have a significant impact on health compared to regular consumption of these foods in large quantities. Furthermore, it's crucial to consider individual health conditions and genetic predispositions when assessing personal risk.

Experts recommend adopting certain practices to mitigate the risks associated with high-temperature grilling:

  • Maintain a moderate temperature to lessen the formation of harmful compounds.
  • Pre-cook chicken in the microwave for a short time before grilling to reduce the time the meat needs to be exposed to high temperatures and subsequently decrease the formation of HCAs and PAHs.
  • Turn meat frequently to prevent the formation of HCAs.
  • Use marinades that are rich in antioxidants, as some studies suggest they may reduce HCA formation.
  • Remove charred portions of meat before consuming to decrease PAH intake.
  • Consider grilling vegetables or fruit, as these do not form HCAs when grilled.

In conclusion, while high-temperature grilling of chicken can present potential health risks, being informed and implementing safer grilling practices can help reduce these risks. Modifying cooking methods and consuming grilled meats in moderation as part of a balanced diet is recommended for health-conscious individuals.

Marinades and Sauces: Hidden Sugars and Sodium

When savoring the smoky flavors of barbecued chicken, we must not overlook the potential health implications of two critical components: marinades and sauces. These elements, though brimming with flavor, may also carry significant amounts of hidden sugars and sodium. Both sugars and sodium can be detrimental to health when consumed in excess, so understanding their presence in your barbecued fare is vital.

Hidden Sugars:

Sauces and marinades often contain sweetening agents to balance acidity and enhance flavor. However, these sweeteners can come in various forms, including refined sugars, corn syrup, honey, or molasses. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar per day for men and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women. Unfortunately, a single serving of barbecue sauce can contain upwards of 10 grams of added sugar, contributing significantly to this daily limit.

Excessive sugar intake can lead to a host of health issues, including weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Therefore, it is crucial to scrutinize labels and opt for sauces and marinades with lower sugar content or use natural alternatives like pureed fruits to sweeten the concoction yourself.

High Sodium Content:

Sodium is another ingredient that marinades and sauces harbor in high amounts. While sodium is necessary for bodily functions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a maximum intake of 2,300 milligrams per day, which can easily be surpassed with high-sodium sauces. A diet rich in sodium can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Some barbecued chicken can contain as much as 500 to 1,000 milligrams of sodium per serving when heavily seasoned with commercial marinades or sauces. It's essential to read labels to determine sodium content and look for "low-sodium" or "no-salt-added" options to help keep your intake within healthy ranges. Other alternatives include making your own sauces at home, allowing you to fully control the amount of sodium used.

In conclusion, while marinades and sauces are integral to the flavor profile of barbecued chicken, awareness and moderation of hidden sugars and sodium in these components are keys to enjoying barbecued chicken without compromising your health. Opting for homemade preparations or seeking out healthier, lower-sugar, and sodium options at the store can help maintain a balanced diet while still indulging in the grilling season's delights.

Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) Formation in Grilled Chicken

Heterocyclic amines, also known as HCAs, are a group of chemicals that may form when muscle meat, including chicken, is cooked using high-temperature methods such as grilling. While grilling can impart a delicious smokiness to chicken, it may also increase the risk of these potentially harmful compounds forming. Here’s an in-depth look at HCAs formation in grilled chicken and the concerns related to dietary health.

How HCAs Form During Grilling

  • When chicken is grilled at high temperatures (above 300°F or 149°C), the amino acids, sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle tissue) react to create HCAs.
  • The duration of cooking and the temperature play significant roles in the amount of HCAs produced. Longer cooking times and higher temperatures typically increase HCA levels.
  • Cooking methods that expose meat to flame, such as direct-flame grilling, can cause fat to drip onto the heat source, leading to flare-ups which can also contribute to HCA formation.

Potential Health Risks

  • Scientific research has indicated that HCAs can cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of certain cancers, including breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers.
  • A study by the National Cancer Institute found that high consumption of well-done, fried or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
  • While the evidence linking HCAs to cancer in humans is still accumulating, there is enough concern that both the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research suggest cooking meats below 300°F and avoiding direct exposure to an open flame.

Reducing HCA Consumption From Grilled Chicken

  • Marinating chicken before grilling can reduce HCA formation. Certain ingredients, such as vinegar, lemon juice, or herbs like rosemary, have been shown to be particularly effective.
  • Pre-cooking chicken in a microwave for 2 minutes before grilling can decrease HCAs significantly by reducing grilling time.
  • Turning meat frequently on the grill can help to minimize HCA development compared to leaving it on the heat source for longer uninterrupted periods.
  • Removing charred portions of the chicken can also help reduce HCA intake, as charred areas contain higher levels of HCAs.

Awareness of the presence and risks associated with HCAs in grilled chicken is essential for individuals looking to make informed dietary choices. Modifying cooking techniques and incorporating preventive measures can help mitigate the potential health concerns while still allowing for the enjoyment of grilled chicken.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Smoke Exposure

When considering the health implications of barbecued chicken, it's essential to understand the presence of certain chemicals that can arise during the cooking process. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are a group of chemicals formed when muscle meat, including chicken, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as grilling or barbecuing directly over an open flame.

Here are some key facts about PAHs and how they relate to barbecued chicken:

  • Formation: PAHs are created when fat and juices from the meat drip onto the fire, causing flames and smoke. The smoke contains PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.
  • Health Concerns: Some PAHs have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic, raising concerns about the long-term health effects of frequent consumption of smoked or grilled meats.
  • Regulatory Perspective: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies several PAH compounds as Group B2, probable human carcinogens.

Research on PAHs and their impact on health is ongoing. Notable studies include:

  • A study published in Environmental Science and Technology that discusses measurement methods for PAHs in barbecued meats.
  • The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry outlines ways to reduce PAH formation during cooking.
  • Research featured in Carcinogenesis provides insights into the biological mechanisms by which PAHs can cause mutations in DNA.

When it comes to minimizing PAH exposure while enjoying barbecued chicken, here are some tips:

  • Limit direct exposure of meat to an open flame to prevent fat from igniting and creating smoke.
  • Use marinades that can act as a barrier and reduce the formation of PAHs.
  • Avoid charring the meat, as blackened areas tend to contain higher levels of PAHs.
  • Cook at lower temperatures for longer periods to help reduce PAH formation.

Smoke exposure during barbecuing not only affects the chicken itself but can also have a direct impact on the cook's respiratory health. Inhaling smoke that contains PAHs and other toxic substances can contribute to lung and heart issues over time. Therefore, ensuring proper ventilation and standing upwind from the smoke can help minimize these risks.

In summary, while barbecued chicken can be a delicious part of a balanced diet, awareness and moderation regarding PAH exposure can help mitigate potential health risks associated with the barbecuing process.

Portion Size and Nutritional Balance in Barbecued Chicken Meals

When discussing the health implications of barbecued chicken, portion size and nutritional balance are crucial factors to consider. The tendency to overeat at barbecues can lead to excessive calorie intake, but by managing portion sizes and aiming for a balanced plate, you can enjoy barbecued chicken as part of a healthy diet.

One serving of cooked chicken is generally considered to be about 3-4 ounces (85-113 grams), roughly the size of a deck of cards. Opting for skinless chicken breasts can significantly lower the intake of saturated fats while still providing a solid source of lean protein, which is essential for muscle repair and maintenance. Choosing chicken thighs or wings will increase your fat and calorie intake, although they also offer more iron and flavor.

The method of barbecuing can affect the nutritional profile of chicken. Grilling chicken can lead to the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures and have been linked to increased cancer risk. To reduce exposure to these compounds, it's advisable to enjoy barbecued chicken in moderation and ensure that it's not charred or overly burnt.

For a nutritionally balanced meal, it's essential to complement the barbecued chicken with a variety of sides. A colorful assortment of vegetables, both grilled and fresh, can add vitamins, minerals, and fiber while balancing out the meal. Whole grains like brown rice or quinoa can provide a healthful base, while a modest serving of healthy fats from an avocado or nuts can round out the dish.

Nutrient Recommended Serving
Lean protein (e.g., skinless chicken breast) 3-4 ounces (85-113 grams)
Vegetables 2-3 cups, various types
Whole grains 1/2 cup (cooked)
Healthy fats 1 tablespoon (e.g., olive oil) or 1/4 cup (e.g., nuts)

Lastly, it's important to consider the marinades and sauces often used in barbecuing chicken. While they can enhance flavor, many store-bought versions are laden with sugars, sodium, and preservatives. Making homemade marinades with natural herbs, spices, and citrus can be a healthier alternative that allows you to control the ingredients and their quantities.

By keeping these points in mind, you can enjoy barbecued chicken responsibly, with an eye on both portion control and overall nutritional balance. Always aim for variety and moderation to keep your meals both pleasurable and healthful.

Healthy Barbecue Practices and Alternative Cooking Methods

Grilling can be part of a healthy diet when done correctly. To mitigate the potential health risks associated with barbecued chicken, consider these guidelines:

  • Choose Lean Cuts: Opt for skinless chicken breasts or thighs to reduce the intake of saturated fats.
  • Marinate: Marinating chicken in vinegar or citrus-based sauces can help decrease the formation of harmful compounds. A study published by the Journal of Food Science suggests that marinating meats can reduce the formation of HCAs by up to 99%.
  • Control the Flame: Keep your grill clean and use a lower temperature to minimize flare-ups and charring. This controls the exposure of chicken to carcinogenic compounds.
  • Trim the Fat: Removing excess fat from the chicken reduces the chance of flare-ups and charring, decreasing the production of PAHs.
  • Flip Frequently: Regularly turning chicken over on the grill cuts down HCA formation, as per research from the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal.
  • Shorten Cooking Time: Cut the chicken into smaller pieces to cook it quicker, and use a meat thermometer to prevent overcooking. Chicken is safe to consume when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F (75°C).
  • Pre-cook: Partially cooking chicken in a microwave or oven before finishing it on the grill reduces the time it spends exposed to smoke and high heat.
  • Avoid Processed Meats: Skip barbecuing processed chicken products like sausages and hot dogs as they contain preservatives, salts, and fillers that are not ideal for health.

Exploring alternative cooking methods to traditional barbecuing can offer health benefits while providing diverse taste experiences:

  • Baking: Baking chicken in the oven can be a healthier option since it doesn't expose the meat to direct flame. This method allows you to control temperature and minimize the formation of harmful substances.
  • Broiling: Broiling allows for high-heat cooking without the direct flame, making it a safer alternative to barbecuing. Position the chicken farther from the heat source to avoid char.
  • Slow Cooking: Slow cookers provide low-temperature cooking over several hours, which significantly reduces the production of harmful compounds while producing tender and flavorful meat.
  • Stir-frying: This quick cooking method, ideally done in a wok or a non-stick skillet, preserves nutrients and is less likely to form harmful chemicals. Use heart-healthy oils and lots of vegetables for a balanced meal.
  • Air Frying: The latest entrants in the cooking appliances market, air fryers replicate the texture of fried foods without the need for excessive oil, which can reduce calorie and fat intake.

Including a variety of these cooking practices in your routine can help you enjoy chicken in a healthier form. Keep in mind that moderation is key; it's entirely possible to include barbecued chicken as part of a balanced diet when following these healthier cooking guidelines.

Frequently asked questions

Research suggests certain ingredients in marinades can reduce the formation of HCAs more effectively. Marinades containing antioxidants such as those found in red wine, beer, garlic, and herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage are shown to be particularly beneficial. Acids from vinegar or citrus juices in marinades can also create a protective barrier that inhibits the reaction responsible for HCA formation. Using these ingredients can help make grilling a healthier option.

Yes, adjusting your cooking method can significantly reduce the intake of carcinogens from grilled chicken. Use indirect heat to avoid direct flame, do not cook the meat at excessively high temperatures, avoid prolonged cooking times, and turn the meat frequently to prevent charring. Additionally, using marinades, trimming excess fat, and removing any charred portions before eating can further minimize your exposure to carcinogens like HCAs and PAHs.

Yes, the thickness of the chicken can influence the formation of harmful compounds during grilling. Thicker pieces of chicken require longer cooking times to reach a safe internal temperature, potentially leading to more HCAs and PAHs if grilled at high temperatures over direct flame. To reduce these risks, it's advisable to cut the chicken into smaller, even-sized pieces for quicker and more even cooking, or to use indirect heat methods of grilling.

High-heat cooking, like barbecuing, can affect the nutritional value of chicken. While the protein content remains largely intact, certain vitamins, such as B vitamins, can be reduced due to the heat. Grilling can also increase the formation of harmful compounds that may have health risks. However, the overall impact on nutritional value is generally small, and chicken retains its status as a good source of protein and other nutrients when grilled, especially if healthy cooking practices are used.

Ask a question about Barbecued Chicken and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • indigestion
  • allergic reactions

Possible long-term side effects

  • increased risk of cancer
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • high blood pressure
  • weight gain
  • type 2 diabetes

Ingredients to be aware of

  • heterocyclic amines (hcas)
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (pahs)
  • advanced glycation end products (ages)
  • added sugars
  • sodium


  • source of lean protein
  • enjoyment of flavor
  • potential reduction in hca formation with marinades

Healthier alternatives

  • grilled vegetables
  • fruits
  • baking
  • broiling
  • slow cooking
  • stir-frying
  • air frying
  • lean cuts
  • skinless chicken
  • homemade marinades
  • low-sodium sauces

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Loma Linda Big Franks

  • Plant-based protein
  • Vegan-friendly
  • Meatless alternative
  • Great for grilling
  • Convenient 12-pack
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 03-19-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 03-19-2024

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