There’s nothing like a summer barbecue. Socializing with friends, good music playing, and of course, great food. There’s plenty of room for vegetarian dishes at any gathering, but it’s hard to deny the allure of the aroma of grilled meat. And while red meat was long demonized for its saturated fat content, thankfully, the truth has started emerging and people need no longer fear beef, lamb and other red meat. These foods are highly nutritious and obviously excellent sources of protein, so pass the burgers and kebabs! And don’t feel guilty for topping that burger with a slice of cheese—like saturated fat overall, dairy fat has been exonerated of crimes against human health.
But all this good news doesn’t mean there aren’t some health pitfalls lurking in a backyard barbecue. While meat, per se, is not harmful to consume, research suggests that compounds formed during grilling—especially if meat is charred or blackened—may be harmful. These potentially harmful compounds include many different individual ones that fall under two main categories: heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). These are believed to be mutagenic and carcinogenic to animals, but human studies based on true food intake (not food frequency questionnaires, which generate extremely flawed and weak evidence) are scarce.
There is little human evidence indicating risk for adverse outcomes associated with any particular level of intake of these compounds. In fact, the National Cancer Institute makes it clear: “Population studies have not established a definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure from cooked meats and cancer in humans.” Moreover, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has not concluded that HCA and PAH are associated with cancer incidence. Concern over potential negative effects from consuming charred meat is extrapolated primarily from rodent studies, in which animals were fed diets supplemented with HCA and PAH “equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet.”
Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution and either limit intake of foods prepared by grilling (or frying, which also results in HCA formation), or take measures to reduce the formation of these compounds. With regard to using other cooking methods, using a slow cooker, sous vide or other, more gentle methods does not result in significant PAH and HCA. Data are mixed, but overall, these compounds are formed based on cooking temperature and time, and form more readily when foods are cooked over open flames or pan-fried at high temperatures.
But the whole point of barbecuing is to … well, barbecue. Tender meat that was slow-cooked in a water bath is delicious and no one would be angry to be presented with that at an outdoor lunch or dinner, but it’s not quite the same as a juicy burger or steak with a little bit of char on the outside. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare meat that have been shown to reduce the formation of HCA and PAH, and they actually make the food taste even better.
Dietary antioxidants are powerful in this regard. In one study, a marinade containing diallyl disulfide (DADS, found in garlic and other alliums) completely prevented the formation of benzo[a]pyrene and reduced heavy PAHs by a whopping 84% in charcoal-grilled pork. The same study showed that quercetin also reduced these, but not as much as DADS. Quercetin is found in red onions. Marinating pork in garlic and red onion? Yes, please! (It should be noted, however, that DADS and quercetin were used at 500 mg/kg of meat – an amount not likely to be provided by a bit of garlic and onion, but maybe something for food manufacturers to think about when formulating commercial marinades.)
A similar reduction in potentially harmful compounds was measured in flame-broiled chicken breast marinated with a mixture of brown sugar, olive oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice and salt. Compared to unmarinated controls, marinated samples cooked for 10, 20, or 30 minutes had lower mutagenic activity, but mutagenic activity was higher in samples cooked for 40 minutes. (But this was just an experiment; no self-respecting cook would grill a chicken breast for 40 minutes.)
Generally speaking, marinades rich in phenolic compounds have been shown to substantially reduce formation of PAH in grilled meat. This is good news, because another barbecue staple—beer—can provide these phenols. One study showed that marinating chicken wings in beer reduced formation of certain PAH by 67%. Similar results were shown for grilled pork, leading researchers to write, “Beer marinades mitigate the impact of consumption of well-done grilled pork meat reducing the formation of cooking carcinogens.” The inhibitory effect of beer marinades on PAH formation increases with the free radical scavenging capacity of the beer – perhaps this will become a marketing tool for beer manufacturers once they catch on. Dark lagers (also called “black beer”) appear to have the highest radical scavenging activity, followed by a non-alcoholic beer, and then pilsner.
For those unwilling to forgo a nice char on a piece of meat, take heart: compared to simply turning the heat down and cooking at a lower temperature, phenolic acid marinades appear to have a greater effect on inhibiting formation of harmful compounds. And it’s not just beer. Antioxidant-rich marinades in general are effective, such as those containing lemon juice, wine (even non-alcoholic wine), ginger, thyme, rosemary, and, perhaps surprisingly, even honey.
Bottom line: there’s no evidence from randomized, controlled studies in humans that charred meat is anything other than delicious. But marinating meat with phenolic acid compounds substantially reduces the formation of compounds associated with mutagenicity and carcinogenesis in rodents.