Three spices in particular -- fingerroot, rosemary and turmeric -- are the most effective in preventing the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are cancer-causing compounds that are produced when meat is barbecued, grilled, broiled or fried.
USA Today reports:
"Specifically, the three spices appeared to cut back on HCA production by upwards of 40 percent ... thereby significantly reducing the HCA-associated risk for developing colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, mammary and prostate cancers."
Spices are one of nature's tasty secret weapons that you can use liberally to make your cooked foods healthier. The best part is, spices are relatively inexpensive and come in a wide variety of flavors, so there's a spice that should appeal to just about everyone.
If you're in the habit of grilling any type of meat -- hamburgers, steak, chicken, pork -- make it a point to explore different spices and become comfortable with using them every time. This simple step could drastically cut down on your exposure to cancer-causing substances that are formed during the cooking process.
Reduce Cancer-Causing Compounds by 40 Percent
Any time you cook food, it degrades nutrients, damages enzymes and, in the case of high-temperature cooking (grilling, broiling, barbecuing and frying), it can also lead to the formation of cancer-causing substances like heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
In terms of HCAs, the worst part of the meat is the blackened section, which is why you should always avoid charring your meat, and never eat blackened sections.
Scientists have estimated the average cancer risk because of heterocyclic amine exposure ranges from 1 per 10,000 for the average person to more than 1 per 50 for those ingesting large amounts of well-done muscle meats. According to Kansas State University researchers, cooked beef is the type of meat most likely to form HCAs, and hamburger patties may be the greatest source of HCAs in the human diet.
By integrating spices into your meat, however, you can drastically cut down on this risk.
When the following three spices were added to meat before grilling, it cut down on HCAs by upwards of 40 percent:
- Rosemary: the strongest protector against HCAs
- Turmeric: the yellow curry spice that's also widely used in yellow mustard
- Fingerroot (Chinese ginger): commonly used in Thai cooking
You needn't use all three of these together; adding even one spice to the meat will provide benefits.
Have You Tried Turmeric?
By expanding into spices you may not be familiar with, you can really kick the flavor of your meals up a notch while also getting some phenomenal health benefits.
Turmeric is one such spice that I highly suggest you try out, if you haven't yet.
For more than 5,000 years, turmeric has been an important part of Eastern cultural traditions, including traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Valued for its medicinal properties and warm, peppery flavor, this yellow-orange spice has more recently earned a name for itself in Western medicine as well.
In India where turmeric is widely used, the prevalence of four common U.S. cancers -- colon, breast, prostate and lung -- is 10 times lower. In fact, prostate cancer, which is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in U.S. men, is rare in India and this is attributed, in part, to turmeric.
It appears that curcumin -- the pigment that gives turmeric its yellow-orange color -- is responsible for many of turmeric's medicinal effects, which stretch far beyond the potential to fight cancer.
In fact, in India people refer to turmeric as "holy powder" because it has such a broad range of health effects. In fact, curcumin has been shown to influence more than 700 genes, with benefits that include:
- Strengthening and improving your digestion
- Supporting healthy liver function and detoxification
- Purifying your blood
- Fighting cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease
- Anti-inflammatory properties
Further, evidence suggests turmeric may play a beneficial role in the following diseases:
- Cystic fibrosis
- Type 2 diabetes
- Crohn's disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Muscle regeneration
- Inflammatory bowel disease
The flavor of turmeric enhances many foods. Just be careful to choose a pure turmeric powder, rather than a curry powder, as at least one study has found curry powders tend to contain very little curcumin, compared to turmeric powder.
If turmeric is a spice you do not enjoy, you can also get the benefits of turmeric by taking it in a high-quality, organic supplement form.
What Other Spices are Beneficial for Cooking?
Spices are not only beneficial for reducing levels of HCAs. They can also help cut back on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (cancer-causing compounds formed in the smoke that surrounds food during grilling) and advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, which are also formed during high temperature cooking.
AGEs build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.
Fortunately, one study found that adding a spice blend to burgers could reduce the level of malondialdehyde, a chemical marker for oxidation, in the meat by 71 percent and levels in participants' urine by 49 percent.
This benefit likely comes from spices' potent antioxidant content. On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano and other herbs rank even higher in antioxidant activity than fruits and vegetables, which are known to be high in antioxidants too.
You can experiment with a range of spices, as each will have a unique set of health benefits to offer, but even the popular standbys will help to boost the medicinal value of your meal. For instance, for the above study researchers used a blend of:
- Black pepper
- Garlic powder
You can use the spices as a dry rub or mix them up into a healthy marinade. Choose those that appeal most to you flavor-wise, or alternatively you can choose them according to their health benefits -- above and beyond reducing cooking byproducts -- too.
For instance, The Huffington Post featured a handy list of herbs based on their health benefits that you can reference when planning your next barbecue:
- Rosemary and basil for their anti-inflammatory power
- Cumin and sage for their dementia-fighting power
- Cayenne and cinnamon for their obesity-fighting power
- Coriander and cinnamon for their sugar regulating powers
- Lemon grass, nutmeg, bay leaves and saffron for their calming effects on your mood
- Turmeric for its cancer fighting power
- Oregano for its fungus-beating power
- Garlic, mustard seed and chicory for their heart-pumping power
- Basil and thyme for their skin-saving power
- Turmeric, basil, cinnamon, thyme, saffron, and ginger for their immune-boosting power
- Coriander, rosemary, cayenne, allspice and black pepper for their depression-busting power
The Healthiest Way to Eat Your Meat?
I believe that most of the negative health associations of eating meat is related to the fact that the meat is cooked. Just as cooked vegetables are not as healthy as uncooked ones, meat undergoes damage when heated. Even if it isn't heated over a barbecue, when you heat it over 170 degrees you will cause damage to the proteins similar to that occurs when milk is pasteurized.
You can easily avoid all these problems by eating your meat uncooked. The problem with doing that in our current culture is that most meat is raised under factory farming conditions. The animals are very unhealthy and likely to harbor infections that can harm you.
However, if you can find humanely raised organic meat, then that risk is virtually eliminated.
In order for meat to be its healthiest, it should be organic and grass-fed, and it should be eaten raw or cooked as little as possible. If you like, you can quickly sear the meat on both sides, leaving the inside mostly raw. This gives the illusion that you're eating cooked meat, with many of the benefits of raw.
I would strongly encourage you to experiment with integrating this into your lifestyle. Many people have no problems eating sushi or steak tartar, so it is not as drastic a leap as you might think at first.
Go ahead and season your meat with spice rubs or homemade marinades even if you don't plan to cook it. Cooking reduces spices' antioxidant levels by 45-70 percent, so by eating spice-enhanced meats raw, this will result in even higher levels of antioxidants (and also far lower levels of toxins).
Eight Grilling Tips Every Health-Conscious Person Should Know
Grilling is really not a healthy way to cook. But, if you're going to do it anyway, at least take the following steps to cut down on the hazardous byproducts created:
- You can reduce the amount of PAHs when you grill by not cooking fatty meats, and by trimming the fat off before you grill.
- When grilling, cook your food with indirect heat, such as on a rack rather than directly on the coals. Cooking on a cedar plank is also helpful.
- Always avoid charring your meat (and don't eat the black parts).
- Cook meat partially before putting it on the grill, or cook smaller pieces of meat, which take less time to cook, and therefore give HCAs less time to form.
- You can reduce the amount of AGEs in your food by using an acidic marinade that contains lemon juice or vinegar.
- Marinating meats before grilling or broiling them can reduce HCAs (according to some experts by 90 percent or more). However, only use natural ingredients for marinades, and keep the coating thin to avoid charring.
- Flip your burgers often, as this will help cut down on HCAs.
- Add blueberries or cherries to your burgers, as similar to spices they can also help prevent the formation of HCAs.
And remember, once you become accustomed to using spices on your meats, branch out to using them on other foods as well, as herbs and spices are some of the most potent antioxidants out there.
When it comes to herbs and spices, you really can't go wrong, but for best quality choose organic spices that have not been irradiated and let your taste dictate your choices, choosing the flavors that appeal most to you and your family.