The Health Risks of Grilling on Aluminum Foil

by drcharles on April 11, 2013

A scanning electron microscope image of aluminum foil after ordinary oven cooking.

A scanning electron microscope image of aluminum foil after ordinary oven cooking.

As the weather heats up, and the allure of grilling returns, it is important to consider some of the potential health risks. One of the great joys of my life is “manning” the grill – beer in hand, wafting smoke rising through the air, a delicious anticipation building. It seems worth the risk of consuming carcinogens present in the smoke and char. I’ve taken to grilling on aluminum foil as the iron griddle deteriorates, black gunk accumulates, and it generally becomes harder to clean – but is this practice actually dangerous?

The answer seems to be a slight yes. Cooking with aluminum foil has been shown to create numerous tiny cracks and flakes in the surface of the aluminum foil as demonstrated with electron microscopy.  Moreover chemical leaching of aluminum into food occurs with greater ease when food contains acidic properties such as lemon juice or spices.

Excessive aluminum in the body has been associated with health problems, but the evidence is patchy and not necessarily convincing.  According to the CDC, high levels of aluminum have been associated with Alzheimer’s in some clinical studies, though this remains controversial as the disease is thought to be multifactorial, and cause and effect has not been established.

Inhalation of aluminum dust in an occupational setting (i.e. not just grilling) has been implicated in the development of respiratory problems and even pulmonary fibrosis in some studies, but not in others, according to OSHA.

High levels of occupation aluminum exposure have been correlated with neurological declines in balance, coordination, and memory.

Oral aluminum exposure has been associated with reproductive toxicity.

It has not been classified a carcinogen.

In general it seems that aluminum exposure through typical sources (foods and water supply) is not harmful enough to cause great concern or regulatory action.

The mining, production, and disposal of aluminum, however, creates an undeniable environmental burden. Refining and smelting contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, including perfluorocarbons and sulfur dioxide, a precursor of acid rain.  Recycling of aluminum requires only 5% of the energy needed for primary extraction.

And so I’m going to change this summer and choose not to grill on aluminum foil, less because of the hard scientific data, and more because of the knowledge that significant flaking and leaching occurs into my food. I’ve ordered a stainless steel griddle to put directly on the grill, which I’m sure will detract significantly from the joy of grilling, and add directly to the burden of scrubbing and cleaning afterwards.




{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

claireM August 28, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Thanks for the information in this article. I use baking paper for wrapping or a silicone mat …both for use on the solid plate only, of course. I only use aluminium foil scrunched up for scrubbing the plate down (with beer) after I’ve finished cooking & the plate is still hot. Then after you eat just a slick wipe with a drop of cooking oil & a kitchen paper towel.

No funky build up if you clean straight away. Seems like a waste of good beer but you can always open another one! Cheers!

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Connie October 10, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Hi, I noticed you story on aluminium in cooking.
I was wondering if any tests have been done on
BBQ’s that who’s body is made from cast aluminium.
Is there anything toxic which could occur from cooking
In that sort of environment. There are two types, the webber and the Ziegler and brown bbqs. They have hoods and are used like an oven.

Best wishes
Connie

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Greg Shea February 19, 2015 at 11:22 am

Hello. Thank you for this site. I have been looking for some time for a barbecue completely free of aluminum, griddle, oven casing, or otherwise. Aluminum is the 3rd most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. It was a very difficult process trying to isolate it and is still a very energy intensive process. Is “nature” trying to tell us something?

Nevertheless, our modern society is highly dependent on this amazing metal. Its use is ubiquitous. One website talks about its use as pie shells, but cautions that one should make sure not to scrape the metal when serving the pie. This may lead to ingestion of the metal which is considered a no no.

We are living in very different times from our ancestors. Old time prospectors used to bake their pannings in potatoes with mercury as a way to separate the gold. We now know that mercury is one of the most toxic of the heavy metals and we must avoid its consumption.

So, when I see potatoes encased in aluminum foil at supermarkets, apparently ready to barbecue or bake, I get very concerned. Why does the aluminum foil have a lining? Is it because the aluminum might “spoil” the food by affecting its taste? People are more concerned about the aesthetics of their food than its composition?

Aluminum cans are another huge issue, whether they hold acidic soups, soda pop or beer.
These cans are most often lined with bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogen mimicker. While the FDA (and Health Canada) see no problem with this, and neither does industry, there is a growing number of studies telling us to beware.

I could go on, but I highly recommend to anyone concerned to watch the video, available free on YouTube: “The Age of Aluminium” for a huge wake-up call.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsDKP9rXLkg

Greg Shea (Lake Cowichan, BC)

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