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Can a Good Marinade Really Ward Off Cancer?

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Grilling this weekend? While grilling can be an easy, healthy and fun way to cook your food, super-charred meats could pose a problem. But new research suggests a delicious marinade may be the answer to cancer-proofing your summer BBQ.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the potential link between grilled food and cancer. The main concern stems from a couple of compounds that form when meats get cooked at high temperatures. These compounds—heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) could cause changes in DNA, potentially increasing the risk of cancer.

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HCAs form when amino acids, creatine and other substances in meat react at high temperatures. PAHs, on the other hand, form when fat drips onto a heating element. The resulting flames contain PAHs, which adhere to the meat.

Animal and human studies have shown that HCAs and PAHs can cause cancer of the breast, colon, pancreas, prostate, and many other organs.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that you can reduce the formation of, and your exposure to, these compounds by doing something as simple as marinating the meat prior to grilling. Marinades create a “barrier” between the meat and cancer-causing compounds. Researchers believe that this could be due to the high antioxidant content of various herbs and spices used in marinades. And from a nonscientific standpoint, marinades just make everything taste so much better!

One recent study found that the combination of white wine, garlic, ginger, thyme, rosemary and red chili powder was the most powerful HCA-reducing combination, but wine alone, nonalcoholic wine with herbs, beer with herbs, and nonalcoholic beer and wine all showed similar (albeit less potent) anti-HCA properties.

And another study examined the effect of three different commercial marinades—Caribbean, Southwest and an herbal blend—on the HCA content of grilled steak. All three decreased HCA formation, but the Caribbean marinade was the most potent (88% reduction), followed by the herb (72%) and Southwest (57%). Researchers stated that the marinades contained considerable amounts of antioxidants, with the Caribbean marinade having the highest.

Truth is, nothing says “summertime living” more than a backyard barbeque. When most people think back on summers past, they fondly remember playing in the backyard while mom or dad stood at the grill flipping burgers and chicken. And we don’t want to give that up! So, along with marinating meat for at least 30 minutes (preferably longer), here are few key tips to decrease HCA and PAH development while grilling:

  • Reduce drippings by trimming fat off of the meat prior to grilling. Or better yet, use the leanest cuts of meat available.
  • Avoid prolonged grilling times by partially cooking the meat in the microwave or a conventional oven before throwing it on the grill. Or, cut the meat into smaller or thinner pieces before grilling.
  • Continuously flip the meat to avoid charring.
  • Keep flames at bay by placing aluminum foil on the grates, then placing the meat on the foil.

Larissa Long Larissa Long has worked in the health care communications field for more than 13 years. She co-authored a self-care book titled Taking Care, has written countless tip sheets and e-letters on health topics, and contributed several articles to Natural Solutions magazine. She also served as managing editor of three alternative health and lifestyle newsletters — Dr. Susan Lark’s Women’s Wellness Today, Dr. David Williams’ Alternatives, and Janet Luhrs’ Simple Living.
For tips, tools and strategies to address your most pressing health concerns and make a positive difference in your life, visit Peak Health Advocate.


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