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Summer Means BBQ, Spice Up Yours for Better Health

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Memorial Day kicks off summer in the U.S., and that means enjoying the great outdoors and for many people, pulling out the grill. After—rather than before—you throw those steaks on the grill, consider marinating them for health benefits.

Research led by University of Western Ontario biology and psychology postdoctoral fellow Raymond Thomas showed that common marinades may be more than just tasty sauces; some also provide a major source of natural antioxidants.

Foods rich in antioxidants play an essential role in preventing heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease, inflammation and problems associated with aging skin.

Thomas showed for the first time the impact of marinating and cooking meat and the antioxidant status of seven different popular brands and flavors of marinade containing herbs and spices as primary ingredients. Each is readily available at local grocery stores and included jerk sauce, garlic and herb, honey garlic, roasted red pepper, lemon pepper garlic, sesame ginger teriyaki and green seasoning.

According to the research, all seven sauces contained very good quantities of antioxidants, but marinating meat prior to cooking reduced antioxidant levels by 45-70 percent. Of the seven sauces, Grace Jerk Sauce and Renée's Sesame Ginger Teriyaki outperformed the other five sauces tested before and after cooking because they contain substantial quantities of ingredients like hot peppers, allspice, sesame and ginger – all of which have high antioxidant properties.

Despite the high percentage of antioxidant loss following marinating and cooking, the sauces still provide benefits over cooking meat without them, the research said.

“Consumers can maximize their intake of the antioxidants available in marinades by choosing those with the highest antioxidant levels prior to marinating and cooking,” said Thomas. "Alternatively, you can brush the sauce on just before serving the meat, or consume it without cooking – like as a salad dressing – where it is permissible to do so.”

When meat is cooked at high temperatures, amino acids react with creatine to form heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which are thought to cause cancers as colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, breast, and prostate. That’s why cooking meat by grilling, frying, or broiling is generally less healthy.

Grilling poses double trouble because meat is also exposed to cancer-causing chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, contained in the smoke that rises from burning coals and any drips of fat that cause flare-ups.

How long the meat is cooked is also a factor in HCA formation; longer cooking time means more HCAs. Depending on the temperature at which it’s cooked, meat roasted or baked in the oven may contain some HCAs, but it’s likely to be considerably less than in grilled, fried, or broiled meat.

Marinating meat is often suggested as a method to cut down on the formation of HCAs, but evidence that marinating offers benefits has mixed reviews. If marinades aren't for you, there's another option: use less meat in your recipe. Pretty much anything that reduces the meat reduces the carcinogens, too.

The Harvard Health Letter suggested some other tips that may make grilled meat safer to eat:

  • Cook smaller pieces:They cook more quickly and at lower temperatures.
  • Choose leaner meat:Less fat should reduce flames and therefore smoke.
  • Precook in the microwave: Doing so for two minutes may decrease HCAs by 90 percent, according to some research.
  • Flip frequently: That way, neither side has time to absorb or lose too much heat.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Sources: Thomas, R., Guglielmo, C., and Bernards, M.A., (2010), Changes in lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant activities in seven herbs and spices based marinating sauces after cooking. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 23:244-252.

“Tips for safer and healthier grilling, from the Harvard Health Letter, June 2007, available online: http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/cancer-risk-from-bbq-meat

“Effects of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks.” Fariba Emamgholizadeh. Thesis, Kansas State University. August 2008. http://hdl.handle.net/2097/913

Reviewed May 24, 2010
Edited by Alison Stanton

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