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Healthier Barbecuing and Grilling

September 4, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

This Monday is Labor Day in the United States. Among other traditions, barbecuing and grilling frequently play a prominent role in the celebration of this holiday. But little known guests called “heterocyclic aromatic amines” (HCAs) almost always tag along and try to spoil the festivities. HCAs are toxic substances commonly produced during the cooking of beef, chicken, fish and pork. So today, I’ll tell you how to keep HCAs from crashing the party and get rid of the HCAs to which we can’t help but be exposed.

HCAs are formed when certain protein rich foods are cooked at high temperatures (100°C or above). It appears that “muscle meats” are the greatest contributors of HCAs, whereas other protein sources such as cheese, eggs, organ meats, milk and soybeans contribute only negligible amounts. Barbecuing, broiling and frying are the cooking methods that produce the greatest amounts of HCAs because of the high heat. Baking and roasting (under 200°C) produce fewer HCAs. Boiling, poaching and stewing are the least likely to promote HCA formation. Cooking time also impacts the concentration of HCAs. Cooking food until it’s “well done” generally creates more HCAs than food prepared to “medium” or “medium-rare”. (1,2)

Many laboratory and population studies conducted over the past few decades have singled out HCAs as likely suspects in promoting a variety of malignancies. Researchers have discovered a connection between HCAs and bladder, breast, colon, esophageal, pancreatic and prostate cancers. In addition, new evidence suggests that HCAs may also play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease. In fact, some scientists believe that the historic negative associations ascribed to frequent meat consumption may be partially the impact of HCAs on the human body. (3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

The good news is that there are natural ways to reduce the formation of HCAs and lessen the damaging effects when consumed.

Marinating foods prior to cooking them is perhaps the best first step in decreasing the levels of HCAs. Marinating is much like applying sunscreen before stepping out for a day at the beach. Antioxidants that are present in a marinade’s liquid base, as well as many of the herbs and spices discourage the harmful chemical reaction that typically occurs when amino acids and creatine interact with high heat.

A study published in the August 2008 edition of the Journal of Food Science examined the effects of several different kinds of marinades and their respective abilities to inhibit HCA production. As a test, steaks were marinated in three separate solutions for one hour prior to cooking. All of the mixtures contained a base of soybean oil, vinegar and water. Here’s a brief description of the other key ingredients in each blend:

  • “Caribbean Marinade” – allspice, black pepper, chives, red pepper, rosemary and thyme
  • “Herbal Marinade” – basil, garlic, jalapeno pepper, onion, oregano, parsley and red pepper
  • “Southwestern Marinade” – black pepper, garlic, onion, oregano, paprika, red pepper and thyme

A fourth unmarinated steak was also cooked and used as a comparison model. The results of this experiment indicated that the steak cooked with a “Caribbean marinade” contained 88% fewer HCAs than did the un-marinated steak. The “herbal” and “Southwestern” marinades decreased HCA concentrations by 72% and 57%. (11)

It’s important to note that not all marinades are protective. A study published nearly a decade ago by the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii found that marinating in a turmeric-garlic sauce or teriyaki sauce could reduce HCAs by as much as 67%. But, marinating in a “commercial honey barbecue sauce” caused a dramatic rise in HCA levels. (12)

Apart from herbs and spices, there appear to be certain ingredients that are particularly well suited for use in healthy marinades. Here’s a brief rundown of the top contenders:

  • Lemon Juice – A combination of garlic, onion and lemon juice produced greater protection against HCAs than a marinade without lemon juice. It appears that lemon juice is best used when combined with other ingredients. (13,14)
  • Olive Oil – Antioxidants (phenols) present in “virgin olive oil” are much more effective than refined olive oil in reducing HCAs. Try to make sure the oil is fresh as well. Older samples of olive oil did not perform as efficiently as fresher oils in interfering with HCA development. (15,16,17)
  • Red Wine – Red wine based marinades are known to be effective in reducing heterocyclic aromatic amines in pan-fried beef and chicken. The degree of reduction may reach levels as high as 90%. (18,19)

Many of these studies use beef as their testing preference. But the same concerns about HCA formation also apply when cooking chicken or fish. In some parts of the world, such as Japan, fish accounts for the majority of HCA exposure. Even healthy, antioxidant-rich foods, such as salmon, are not immune to this toxic reaction. (20,21,22)

Regardless of how hard we try, we’ll all undoubtedly be exposed to some amount of HCAs in our diet. I’ve identified four specific ways to help nullify the damaging effects of these proposed carcinogens after they’re consumed.

  1. Cruciferous Vegetables – Broccoli, brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens and kale are all members of the Brassicaeae family, otherwise known as cruciferous vegetables. These “super foods” can assist the body in ridding itself of toxins via “phase I and phase II metabolizing enzymes”. In essence, they help detoxify these harmful elements in a real time manner. Therefore, it may be wise to include some of these veggies at meals where HCAs are likely to lurk. (23,24,25)
  2. Fiber – Modern research indicates that dietary fiber may be able to bind to HCAs and encourage their safe elimination. This binding process may prevent HCAs from causing damage in the body. This is also one of the mechanisms by which fiber is thought to protect against colorectal cancer. (26,27,28)
  3. Probiotics – Beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, are commonly found in kefir, sour cream and yogurt. Some of these healthful bacteria (L. casei, L. helveticus and S. thermophilus) appear to play “a key role in the activation and detoxification of HCAs”. Fermented dairy products seem to confer the same benefits. It’s interesting to note that cultures that consume large quantities of grilled meats, such as in many Middle Eastern countries, also tend to include yogurt or fermented foods in the same meals. (29,30,31,32,33)
  4. Tea – Components in tea (such as EGCG – epigallocatechin gallate) seem to speed up the body’s ability to break down HCAs, thereby degrading them to less harmful (mutagenic) substances. However, not all teas are equally able to do so. Black tea doesn’t appear to be very effective in this regard. Green tea is a better choice, but it’s not as powerful as white tea, according to a recent laboratory study. (34,35,36,37)

The key to healthy barbecuing and grilling involves several different steps: 1) cook at the lowest reasonable temperature; 2) marinate with antioxidant rich ingredients; 3) eat and drink protective foods along with meals that are likely to contain HCAs. Try to incorporate as many of these guidelines as possible the next time you throw some wild salmon, thick-cut pork chops or grass-fed buffalo burgers on the grill. I hope you all enjoy the long holiday weekend in the best possible health. I’ll be taking Monday off to celebrate with my loved ones and maybe we’ll do some healthy grilling of our own.

Be well!


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Posted in Detoxification, Food and Drink, Nutrition

15 Comments & Updates to “Healthier Barbecuing and Grilling”

  1. Nina K. Says:


    what a delicous article :-). Beside the healthy aspects of the spices they taste great. So if we follow great tasting foods we consume automatically healthy foods, good to know.

    Nice weekend and a tasty and healthy Labour Day!
    Nina K.

  2. JP Says:

    Thanks, Nina!

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Most of the natural foods that are colorful and fragrant can do wonders for our health – as well as satisfying our taste buds.

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend too!

    Be well!


  3. Paul Fanton Says:

    Hi JP,

    Excellent and timely information!

    God bless you and give you and loved ones a great,
    healthy and happy Labor Day!


  4. JP Says:

    Thank you, Paul!

    I wish you the same!

    Be well!


  5. Angie Says:

    Wow, thanks for the grilling tips! I love grilled food!

  6. JP Says:

    You’re most welcome, Angie!

    I love grilling too! 🙂

    Be well!


  7. David Says:

    JP. I know you take krill oil, I take only fish oil altough thinking about adding krill oit. Maybe this answer to a reader by Dr Barry Sears is interesting for you:

    “It is impossible to remove toxins such as PCBs or dioxins from krill oil. Furthermore, I have not seen any large-scale clinical studies with krill oil.”

  8. JP Says:

    Good day, David.

    Thank you for the link.

    It’s my understanding that krill are less likely to contain PCBs and heavy metals primarily because they’re harvested in rather remote waters and are lower on the food chain than the larger fish typically used as sources of fish oil. < --- Note: I'm not knocking fish oil. I use that as well. I've also read that the major manufacturers of (most) krill oil, such as Neptune Krill Oil and Superba test for heavy metals and PCBs as a regular part of their QC protocol. Supposedly, their products are classified as being virtually free of such contaminants. Here's the site of the krill oil (raw material) provider that I'm currently using (NKO). I can also contact a rep from the distributor that I'm using (Now Foods) and ask if they do any additional testing to verify the raw material certificate of analysis. NKO - http://www.neptunebiotech.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=38&Itemid=39

    Another good source, IMO – http://www.superbakrill.com/section.cfm?path=58

    Now Foods Info. – http://nowfoods.com/Products/ProductsbyCategory/Category/M097317.htm?cat=Nutritional%20Oils

    I’ll report back on anything else I learn.

    I agree with Dr. Sears that much more research has been conducted on fish oil. It’s also factual that larger scale studies have been performed using fish oil. Krill oil is much newer to the market and simply isn’t popular enough to generate the same kind of funding at this time.

    I looked to see what upcoming studies are in the works for krill oil. I know of at least two – 1) completed but not published – about it’s ability to prevent thrombosis; and 2) currently recruiting – to determine it’s effect in an early Alzheimer’s population.

    Be well!


  9. David Says:

    I take Super Omega 3 from LEF, and now along with WholeMega from New Chapter, 4 net grams every day.

    Lastly I am amazed with pro saturated fat theories. I am thinking in adding extra virgin coconut oil along with my local organic extra virgin olive oil (I live in Spain).


    The Importance of Saturated Fats for Biological Functions

  10. JP Says:


    I got a reply from Now Foods. They said that they have proof of quality from the raw material supplier and also conduct QC tests in-house.

    Here’s a link that was provided to explain part of that process:


    More info. provided by NF – http://www.nowfoods.com/Quality/index.htm

    Be well!


  11. David Says:

    Thanks, I saw, anyway I have no extra benefits consuming krill oil if I already consume phospholipids from soy lecithin and astaxantin from a lipid soluble multivitamin.

  12. David Says:

    I dont see* extra benefits (when I write fast I invent your language lol).

  13. JP Says:


    It sounds like you’ve got your supplement bases covered!

    PS – I eat a considerable amount of saturated fat in my diet. Lately, a good portion of it has come from shredded coconut. I do like coconut milk and coconut oil as well. 🙂

    Be well!


  14. medicmagic Says:

    so there actually is a healthy way for barbeque ahhaha.. nice

  15. JP Says:

    Updated 03/06/17:


    Meat Sci. 2017 Feb 14;129:1-8.

    Effects of cooking methods and tea marinades on the formation of benzo[a]pyrene in grilled pork belly (Samgyeopsal).

    We investigated the effects of different grilling tools, temperatures, and tea marinades on the formation of benzo[a]pyrene in grilled pork belly as well as the antioxidant capacities of tea marinades. The least amount of benzo[a]pyrene was detected in modified charcoal-grilled pork belly (1.28μg/kg). The highest risk factors for the formation of benzo[a]pyrene are direct contact with flames and fat excess on the heating source. A modified charcoal grill can be used as an alternative grilling tool to meet consumer needs for safety and taste. The marination of pork bellies with tea increased radical-scavenging activity and prevented lipid oxidation in proportion to the concentration of tea infusion and marinating time. The yerba mate tea marinade significantly increased the radical-scavenging activity and prevented benzo[a]pyrene formation more than the green tea marinade. Tea marinade can be applied to seasoning or sauce as pretreatment to preserve the quality of meat and to decrease benzo[a]pyrene formation during cooking.

    Be well!


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