Barbecuing meat may make it delicious, but it can also create carcinogens. In fact most methods of cooking beef produce the cancer-causing compounds heterocyclic amines (HCAs). But scientists have now shown that certain herbs and spices can reduce the levels of HCAs in meat by as much as 40%.
Although HCAs can be produced when other meats such as chicken or pork are cooked, they tend to be most prevalent in beef, and especially in hamburgers, which may be the biggest source of HCAs in our diet.
These HCAs increases risk factors for colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, mammary and prostate cancers. The levels of HCAs in food can be reduced by cooking for shorter times at lower temperatures, but this can result in food poisoning if the food is undercooked.
But plants such as herbs and spices contain antioxidant compounds that can neutralize the presence of these HCAs, so chemistry professor J. Scott Smith of Kansas State University decided to investigate their effect on cooked beef.
Smith’s research team investigated six spices — cumin, coriander seeds, galangal, fingerroot, rosemary and turmeric — and found that the latter three had the highest levels of antioxidant activity toward inhibiting the formation of HCAs, with rosemary as the most effective.
Previous research in his laboratory has demonstrated that some commercial rosemary extracts, available for purchase on the Internet, can inhibit HCA formation by 61 to 79 per cent. Smith’s earlier work also showed that Thai spices can inhibit HCA formation by 40 to 43 per cent.
It seems that introducing the spices into the cooking process at an early stage, such as in a marinade, can be the most effective way to counteract the formation of HCAs during cooking.