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Meat Marinades—More than Meets the Eye

Marinades for beef are more than just a tasty addition to your dinner: They can protect against toxic compounds that are created when meat is cooked at high temperature.

More heat leads to less healthy meat

While grilled vegetables are healthful, American meat eaters have been warned away from the grill, because the high heat of grilling creates harmful substances in beef, chicken, pork, and fish. One group of these substances, heterocyclic amines (HCAs), is potentially cancer-causing (carcinogenic) to humans. Some HCAs are classified as probable human carcinogens.

Marinade magic

A recent study showing that marinating meat prior to grilling reduces HCA formation comes as welcome news to steak lovers everywhere. To arrive at this conclusion, researchers marinated beef steaks for one hour in a base of water, soybean oil, and vinegar plus one of the following spice blends:

• Caribbean (thyme, red pepper, black pepper, all spice, rosemary, and chives),

• Southwest (paprika, red pepper, oregano, thyme, black pepper, garlic, and onion), or

• herb (oregano, basil, garlic, onion, jalapeno pepper, parsley, and red pepper).

After cooking, the marinated steaks contained significantly lower levels of HCAs than un-marinated steaks. The Caribbean mixture reduced total HCA formation by 88% compared with no marinade. The herb marinade reduced total HCAs by 72%, and the Southwest marinade reduced total HCAs by 57%.

These findings line up with advice on marinating provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research, and study author Dr. J. Scott Smith concurs: “Marinating steak before grilling is a practical way to reduce HCA contents of even well-done beef for many consumers.”

Marinating for healthier meals

If you enjoy grilled meat, keep the following tips in mind to ensure the healthiest meals possible:

• Even with marinade, limit beef consumption to one to two times per week. Eating lots of red meat is linked with higher risk of colorectal, and possibly other, cancers.

• Stick to a 3-ounce serving, about the size of a deck of cards.

• To avoid bacterial contamination of cooked meat, make two batches of marinade. Use one batch on the raw meat before grilling, then toss. Use a fresh batch as a finishing sauce or dip after the meat is fully cooked.

• Use spices from the mint family in your marinade, including rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, and basil. These are particularly effective for reducing HCAs in grilled meat.

• Make your marinade from scratch. Some researchers have noted that commercial sauces can increase HCA formation, possibly due to high fructose corn syrup in the mixture.

• Precook your meat in the microwave for one to two minutes before grilling to further reduce HCAs.

• Flip your meat often while cooking—with tongs, not a fork. Forks can pierce meat and cause juices to drip onto the grill, increasing HCA formation.

• For safety, use a meat thermometer and cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F; ground beef, pork, and lamb to an internal temperature of 160°F; and beef steaks and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F.

• Enjoy all the grilled veggies you want. HCAs do not form in these foods.

(J Food Sci 2008;73:T100–T105)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

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