Post from the Past: Meat Marinades

Original post 11/24/08


I was recently horrified to discover that BBQ is very bad for you. Actually, cooking any meat at very high temperatures (350 degrees or higher, grilling over open flame, or smoking) causes the amino acids to break down and produce some very nasty carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been directly linked to cancer. See links at and Harvard Health Publications. Oh all right, and the National Cancer Institute online.

All this time I thought I was doing myself a favor by eating the BBQ and skipping the mac’n’cheese. And “high temperatures” means 350 degrees or higher; personally, I don’t know anybody who cooks their meat at 200 for fourteen hours, or boils it, or microwaves it prior to cooking, as one study recommends. Um, gross.

Fortunately, I recently came across a Journal of Food Scence study indicating that certain meat marinades block the chemical reaction causing HCAs. According to the study, soaking meat for an hour in an herbal marinade of antioxidant-rich spices reduces formation of HCAs by up to 80%. A Caribbean blend of spices was the most effective marinade tested. This still doesn’t really work for BBQ, but it’s great for steaks, burgers, chicken, fish, and pork just cooked on the grill or in the oven–and yes, your Thanksgiving turkey.

Beneficial spices include basil, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, or thyme. Turmeric and garlic have also proven to be powerful cancer-preventing agents. Study author J. Scott Smith also “suspects that the antioxidants found in red wine and in many fruits and vegetables might also do the trick” (especially citrus fruits) although this wasn’t tested. And a article specifies that the marinade be a “thin, very liquid sauce” such as a teriyaki marinade or a turmeric-garlic sauce, though they still recommend staying away from thick BBQ sauces.

So am I saying don’t eat BBQ at all? Well, yes. But how realistic is that? As the author of a comment on one of these articles writes, rather appropriately, “You ‘scientists’ won’t be happy until people are afraid to do anything, will you. Your next study should be ‘Breathing: A Leading Cause of Death.’ This study would show that 100% of the people who breathe die at some point or another and that people should try and limit their daily air intake to 2-3 times.”

Ultimately, we’re all going to die anyway, so just take it easy on the ribs and fried chicken and, well, BBQ. And other than eating less meat in general (which isn’t a bad idea for environmental reasons as well as a way to detox without detoxing, next week’s topic), there are quite a few things you can do to have your burger and eat it, too.

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