The myths, the misconceptions, and the facts about healthy grilling with wood pellets and pellet smokers.
If you believe the buzz, pellet grills are the next best thing since sliced bread in the outdoor cooking world.
You may have heard people touting the notable advantages of using wood pellets over propane and charcoal or that they’re the cure for all your grilling and smoking cancer related fears.
Sound too good to be true? Well, partially it is.
The short answer is yes, food grade wood pellets are no riskier than other cooking fuels.
Keep reading to see if they are actually a better alternative…
Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If A Char-Crusted Steak And Slow Smoked Brisket Were “Health Foods”?
Served with a fat dollop of steak butter or smothered in a thick tangy barbeque sauce?
“I seared this steak and slow smoked this brisket for my health,” you could loudly declare while wiping sauce from your chin.
Sadly, this is not the case, as we all know. While it is true that some fuel options are safer than others, are wood pellet grills the safest of them all?
- What are food grade wood pellets?
- Are wood pellet grills healthy or are they a cancer risk?
- How exactly do grilling and smoking cause cancer?
- Reducing the effects of carcinogens while using a pellet grill
- Other things you can do to reduce the risks
- Are wood pellet grills healthy for the planet?
- Is a wood pellet grill right for me?
How To Read This Article
If you’re just curious about pellet grills as a healthy alternative:
- Feel free to skim and learn whatever you like.
If you want to learn about healthier ways to grill:
- You don’t need to know every detail.
- Check out my advice about keeping it tasty and healthy.
If you’re interested in whether pellet grills are better for the environment:
- Pay special attention to the section titled “Are Wood Pellet Grills Healthy for the Planet?”
If you’re genuinely concerned and don’t mind geeking out with a little science:
- I dive a little deeper in every section throughout.
Putting The Dangers Into Perspective
At first glance, pellet-burning models seem like the answer to those countless, worrisome articles and studies that warn you against grilling or smoking your foods lest you get cancer.
Let me preface this by saying that smoke damage and carcinogens are genuinely dangerous, and even the most avid grill master understands that cooking foods at high heat in a manner that openly burns fuel and produces smoke all comes with a degree of risk.
And there are risks. But to put it into perspective, it’s also risky to use the microwave or deep fry foods, but most of us have gobbled down a burning hot pocket or a pile of onion rings.
So, are wood pellet grills healthy? Let’s break it down piece by piece.
Wood Pellets Explained
The questions we are looking to answer are:
- Are all wood pellets the same?
- What are they made of, exactly?
- How are wood pellets made?
- Why do they burn so well?
Because pellets are traditionally used in smokers, they’re clearly made to smoke right?
Well not always. They can also be used to cook at moderate to high heat as a convection oven or at blazing hot temperatures over an open flame for a quick sear.
No matter the way you use them to cook, it stands to reason that you want to know what’s wafting into the air when they do.
Pellet Stoves Do Not Use The Same Fuel As Pellet Grills
Pellets for BBQ grills contain all natural food-grade materials, which automatically renders them safer than heating pellets.
Whereas heating pellets include softwoods, compressed charcoal, and a variety of fillers that would, without question, leave your food tasting like a chemical disaster, BBQ pellets rely on natural hardwoods.
If there are any fillers present inside of a particular type of food grade pellet, you can rest assured that it’s simply filler wood from a different type of tree.
For example, one of the reasons that grill and pit masters love pellet grills is due to the flavor. It’s not just the smoke; it’s the flavor of the smoke.
You can find pellets from nearly any tree you can imagine. While apple and hickory are the two most common, and mesquite one of the most well-known, there are also alder, cherry, maple, oak, and pecan pellets.
Part of the fun of cooking on a wood-fired grill is experimenting with flavor combinations.
What Are Food Grade Wood Pellets Made Of?
Basically, wood pellets are leftover wood materials. Instead of chopping down a whole tree to make pellets, wood is taken from leftover or unwanted products.
Materials included in pellet manufacturing would be:
- Wood chips
- Lumber mill scrap
Some or all of these elements are combined to make food grade pellets.
All materials used are completely natural and do not contain any bonding agents that can cause a variety of health issues ranging from respiratory illnesses or even cancer.
There is also the added bonus of not having destroyed the environment by extracting these materials to make them.
The main thing to take away here is that again, they are food grade, which means they are a safe fuel to cook with, it’s smoke, and fumes will not affect your health or the outcome of your meal.
How Are Wood Pellets Made?
The raw material is next sent to a dryer that dries it to a nice consistent moister level.
Next, it’s off to the Pellet Mill where the sawdust is pressed at very high pressure. The pressure causes the sawdust to heat up and bind together.
The pellets come out of the Pellet Mill soft and at around 225 degrees F. They are then cooled and they harden up.
For a closer look at the process, Click Here.
Why Do Pellets Burn So Well And What Exactly Is A Filler?
Back to the subject of fillers.
You are only likely to get wood that’s 100% apple, cherry, or hickory if you’re using chunks or chips.
With pellets, you’re likely to have some filler included, but it will always consist of hardwood. It’s usually oak. There are more oak trees than cherry trees, you see. However, filler wood in food-grade pellets won’t affect flavor or odor.
Using a hardwood filler like oak also helps to create burn consistency, which is particularly vital in blends.
Some woods burn faster than others. That affects your grilling because when you keep adding fuel that burns quickly, you end up with flare-ups and hot spots.
Remember that because we’ll return to that point shortly.
Back to the current topic, the presence of oak in pellets allows for a similar burn rate across the board, even if you mix different flavors or purchase a pre-made blend.
Not to make it all about money, but in this case, filler material saves it.
Oak trees aren’t expensive to harvest. Again, you also don’t have to burn through as many pellets with the oak providing a consistent, dense base.
Are Wood Pellet Grills Healthy or Are They a Cancer Risk?
Are wood burning grills healthy? Do they actually cause cancer?
I want to give you the answer before the explanation, so, no.
On their own and operated properly, wood pellet grills do not cause cancer—or, more correctly, they’re no riskier than any other type of grill.
The consensus is that moderate consumption of grilled meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables won’t hurt you. The way you grill is a critical factor, however, along with the temperature at which you cook and the quality of the food you eat.
No one likes talking or even thinking about cancer, particularly if something they enjoy is linked to it.
You have to familiarize yourself with those risks, though, even with grilling.
There are risks between eating foods that have been grilled or smoked and the development of specific types of cancer. Pancreatic cancer is most commonly associated with grilling.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s closely associated with the consumption of fried foods, as well.
How Exactly Does Grilling And Smoking Cause Cancer?
The first logical question we should ask is what exactly happens during the grilling or smoking process that increases the adverse effects of meat prepared in these ways has on our health.
Since pellet grills are convenient and versatile in that they act as smokers as well, a distinction needs to be pointed out between the two processes.
Cooking meat by grilling is different than doing so with smoke, and so are the potential health hazards that result from these practices.
Grilling Your Meat
As soon as animal fats are on the fire and the sizzle starts, the reaction results in the formation of heterocyclic amines, also known as HCAs.
Full disclosure: HCAs are harmful. Upon forming, they’re released into the air and swarm your meat, permeating it as it is cooking above the fire and becoming lodged inside.
Studies conducted on animals show that consuming these chemicals increases the chance of getting cancer.
Here’s what you need to remember, however: there are ways to keep this to a minimum when you grill.
HCAs most often occur along with flare-ups and uneven heat. Pockets of intense heat will char your meat to a crisp. That’s when grilling gets dangerous—and also distasteful, not to mention what it will do to your reputation as a grill master.
Crisping the fat is one thing, but no one wants to chew on a leathery chunk of charred protein.
See why the oak fillers in wood pellets are necessary? Bless those oak trees.
But how are wood pellet grills healthy if the chemicals get into the air and permeate your food?
Again, as long as you maintain an even heat and avoid charring, you’re safe.
More to the point, modern wood pellet grills contain a convection fan system that not only disperses the air and the smoke but also ensures an evenly heated cooking area.
The risk of flare-ups is rare when you take care.
The 411 On Smoking
Wood pellet grills generally do double-duty as smokers, hence the focus on flavored pellets. Smoking occurs over a long period of time at low, slow temperatures, which means that HCAs aren’t a problem since charring doesn’t occur.
It probably comes as no surprise, but it’s the smoke that is the concern here.
The indirect heat from smoking is a healthier option because HCAs are barely a worry, if at all, but smoke from wood pellets is still smoke and is the source of harmful chemicals, the same chemicals that add the pleasant smell of different kinds of wood to the meat.
You can find PAHs in a variety of places, including many of the processed foods you enjoy, but it must be said that the concentration of PAHs has been found to be higher in home-smoked meats.
Wait, That Sounds Scary!
It’s not nearly as fearsome as it seems, though.
The truth of the matter is that these chemicals don’t pose much of a threat if you’re exposed to them in small amounts
That means that as long as your consumption of smoked meats is somewhat moderate, you’re most likely to be fine. Enjoying a grilled burger or smoked brisket once in a while will probably not increase the likelihood of cancer developing at all.
The convection system found in most wood pellet grills also helps by diffusing the smoke, as well, while still giving you enough flavor.
Still asking yourself, “Are wood pellet grills healthy? Are they safe?” Yes, and yes, but there are also several ways to further decrease any risk when you BBQ on a pellet grill or smoker.
Make It Tasty Without Sacrificing Safety
For the health conscious, or for those who can’t live without regular grill use, the following tips will reduce the meat’s exposure to carcinogens while sacrificing almost nothing in terms of flavor.
Marinate Before Cooking
The marinade acts as a protective barrier around the meat, barring those dangerous chemicals from penetrating your food.
Obviously, the taste factor is another bonus. Using a marinade will also help tenderize your proteins.
Trim The Fat
Not a problem.
Before barbecuing or smoking your meat, trim off nearly all the fat. That cuts down on the formation of those pesky HCAs, plus it’s healthier for you.
Opting for leaner cuts of meat altogether is another option. You don’t have to give up burgers and steaks, but moderate your intake of red meat, as it’s generally fattier.
Trust that, chicken, turkey, and fish are mouthwatering examples of lean meats and are a healthier alternative —if you have the skills to work the grill, of course.
Vegetables Can Be As Tasty As Meat If Properly Grilled
Go meatless and find out how fantastic vegetables taste when they’re prepared on a pellet grill.
When properly grilled, they can easily hold the same smoky flavor, making them worth considering.
Avoid Undercooking or Overcooking Your Meat
It’s also important to understand how to grill without overcooking or undercooking your meat.
Researchers have also proven that overcooked meat significantly raises the risk of stomach cancer so just chalk that up as one more reason to use a meat probe to monitor the doneness of your meat.
What Else Can You Do To Reduce The Risks?
Not to belabor the point, but grilling and smoking with care is essential, as well.
Don’t purchase sub-par pellets. Read what’s in them before you buy them. Make sure they contain all natural ingredients and no bonding agents.
You can also do much to mitigate the risks by taking a more active and conscious role in cooking your meat.
Don’t hike the temperature to ridiculous levels and avoid charring and sticking, but don’t grill at a temperature so low that the food remains on the BBQ forever.
Your goal is to reduce the amount of time your food is over the fire without charring it. Anytime you grill more than one protein, plan it out beforehand, as fish cooks faster than beef.
The half and half approach is also helpful, as well.
One method involves cooking your meat in the microwave until it’s halfway done, then finishing it on the grill.
Searing is smart, anyway. Not only does it lock in the meat’s natural juices, but it also closes the pores before the food ever comes in contact with the wood smoke.
Lastly, if you are one of the folks that think never cleaning your grates adds “Extra Flavor” to your current cook, (seriously, these people are out there among you, I’m looking at you dad) then think again.
Make sure that the grill you are using is always clean before meat is placed on the grate. Leftover soot and burnt fat can have carcinogenic chemicals in them remaining from last time, so get rid of them.
Clean your grill grates before each use.
Seriously—go clean it now.
Are Wood Pellet Grills Healthy for the Planet?
You now know the potential risks of eating food cooked on a wood pellet grill, as well as how to mitigate them.
How does wood smoke affect the planet?
Well, wood pellets are a greener option than charcoal. They burn more evenly and produce a much cleaner smoke than charcoal does.
Smoke is always an issue, and it does pollute the air. Moderation is once more the key. You can grill out once or twice a week without leaving a massive carbon footprint.
Perhaps most importantly, pellet grills burn more efficiently. Charcoal is just kind of a mess—it can be delicious, but it can be a pain.
Gas is cleaner burning, but it’s also gas, and it’s sometimes a hassle unless it’s a stationary grill.
The Bottom Line
Are wood pellet grills healthy?
The simple answer is yes.
It’s impossible to ignore the evidence that suggests the consumption of grilled and smoked food can have something to do with the formation and development of a number of cancers, but there simply isn’t overwhelming and conclusive proof yet that this is the case.
After all, hominids have been preparing their food over open wood fires longer than humans have existed as a species, and we still seem to be doing pretty well for ourselves.
Grilling is like almost everything else: if you do it safely and with skill, then you’ll be fine.
On the other hand, asking questions like are pellet grills healthy is a good way to reexamine our habits and adopt more health-conscious lifestyles.
As was mentioned above, this doesn’t have to result in cutting out smoked and grilled foods altogether, but taking a more responsible approach to grilling can only be good in the long run, both for your health and as a means of increasing your repertoire of dishes you might not have considered grilling before.
Go for the smoke, but watch out for the fat and get the proteins off of that sparkling clean grill grate as quickly as possible.
Unless of course, you are slow smoking a mouthwatering brisket. Then all bets are off!
Let me leave you with a wonderful quote from Meathead Goldwyn, owner of one of my favorite grilling sites Amazing Ribs.
“Grilling is not bad for your health. But it appears that bad grilling may be bad for your health.”
That pretty much says it all.
For more on the science of cancer risks caused by grilling, check out Amazing Ribs highly informative article here. You won’t regret it.
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