Grilling meat is a delicious option and a great change in routine now that the weather is warming up. While a lot of health-conscious people enjoy grilled meat, they often wonder about the notion that grilling meat produces carcinogens. Unfortunately, it is true that cooking meat at high temperatures (grilling or otherwise) creates toxins called heterocyclic amines, which have been linked to some cancers. And charcoal grilled meats and smoked fish contain chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are used to induce cancer in laboratory animals. Thankfully, there are several herbs, spices and other foods that, when eaten with cooked meat, reduce the amount of carcinogens in the meat.
As Sally Fallon points out in Nourishing Traditions, our ancestors ate smoked meats and fish liberally without suffering from high levels of cancer. Fallon says this is most likely due to the fact that their traditional diets contained foods and other elements that protected them against these carcinogens. Indeed, fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, and fermented sauces are protective against carcinogens. Lactic-acid producing bacteria—the kind found in traditionally prepared, raw fermented foods—inhibit and inactivate carcinogenic substances.
Cabbage, a food traditionally served with meats in the form of sauerkraut and coleslaw, is full of cancer protective properties. Cabbage is especially rich in vitamin C, potassium, calcium and magnesium, but perhaps even more importantly, cabbage contains powerful anticancer compounds known as glucosinolates. These compounds work to increase antioxidant defense mechanisms and help the body detoxify harmful chemicals. In a study with two groups of volunteers, one group ate a normal diet while the other group ate a diet rich in vegetables from the cabbage family. Both groups also ate carcinogenic substances. The group eating a diet rich in crucifers eliminated these substances more quickly than the control group.
In a study reported in the Journal of Food Science in 2010, researchers found that beef patties cooked with rosemary extract contained less heterocyclic amines—the higher the concentration of rosemary, the greater the reduction; in some cases by over 90 percent. Scientists attribute this to the specific antioxidants in rosemary—rosmarinic acid, carnosol and carnosic acid.
Garlic and onion also appear to be protective against carcinogens. In a study in 2007, researchers found that when an oil marinade containing garlic, onion and lemon, was put on beef patties, the amount of carcinogens produced when the beef was fried was significantly less. While the combination of all three proved to be helpful, the garlic and onion appeared to have the most potent effect, in some cases lowering the amount of heterocyclic amines by 70 percent.
Don’t Forget About Fermentation
Fermentation is essentially the process of preserving vegetables without freezers or canning machines. After adding salt to the vegetables and pounding and massaging to release their juices, lactic acid—which is naturally occurring in vegetables—acts as a preservative, while the salt protects against harmful bacteria. This allows Lactobacilli to proliferate. Lactobacilli are a great source of naturally occurring probiotics that aid in digestion and promote the growth of good bacteria in the digestive tract.
Traditionally, people have eaten lacto-fermented foods as condiments to their meals. In modern culture this has largely been abandoned, but it is something we should all strive to bring back into our diets. Enjoy some alongside your grilled meat this summer to help your body clear carcinogens produced from cooking.
Here are a couple recipes to help give your body an extra boost to eliminate any carcinogens you ingest the next time you fire up the grill.
Adapted from Nourishing Traditions
Makes 1 quart
1 medium cabbage, cored and shredded, or chopped into bite sized pieces
2 TBSP sea salt
- Place the cabbage in a large bowl with the salt.
- Massage and squeeze cabbage with your hands, or pound it with a wooden pounder for five to ten minutes to release the juices.
- Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouthed mason jar and press down firmly with the pounder until the juices come to the top of the cabbage. Important – The top of the cabbage should be at least 1-inch below the top of the jar.
- Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for 3 days, then transfer to cold storage. The sauerkraut may be eaten immediately but improves with age.
Be aware that when you open the jar after it has been fermenting for three days, there will be pressure, and some of the juices may burst out. It’s best to open it slowly over the sink.
Prepare the sauerkraut so you’ll have it on hand whenever you need it. You can make this in about 15 minutes and it’s ready to eat in as little as three days!
Garlic & Rosemary Marinade
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1/4 cup plus 2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 TBSP minced rosemary (about 6 fresh sprigs)
2 TBSP unrefined sea salt
2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
- Whisk all of the ingredients in a bowl until combined.
- Marinate your favorite cut of meat, chicken or fish prior to cooking or rub marinade onto meat. For burgers, brush marinade on the patties before grilling and add 2 to 3 cloves of the minced garlic and a bit of the minced rosemary to the beef when forming into patties.