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Marinating meat in beer before grilling can reduce the amount of cancer-causing chemicals that end up in your barbecued steak.Mike Stone/Reuters


I read recently that beer can cut the carcinogens out of barbecued meat – making it healthy again. Do I have to marinate everything in beer now? Should I use ale or lager, barley or wheat beer? What else can I do?


It's a pairing health-conscious grill masters should embrace: meat and beer. Before my best-intentioned nutrition advice is misconstrued, I'm recommending that you marinate meat in beer before throwing it on the grill. Doing so can reduce the amount of cancer-causing chemicals that end up in your barbecued steak.

Chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed from free radicals during high-heat cooking (e.g. grilling, broiling, frying). PAHs damage DNA and cause cancer in animals. In people, high intakes of barbecued meats are linked to a greater risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

PAHs are created when fat and juices from meat drip onto hot coals or stones causing flames; they're deposited back onto meat by smoke and flare-ups. The higher the heat and the longer the cooking time, the more PAHs are generated.

Since PAHs are made from free radicals, it's possible that foods and beverages high in antioxidants – like certain types of beer – could block their formation. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, countering their harmful effects.

A study published last month in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry put the antioxidant theory to the test. Researchers from the University of Porto, in Portugal, marinated pork in marinades made with Pilsner, non-alcoholic Pilsner and black beer, and then grilled the meat until well-done.

All three beer marinades reduced the amount of PAHs in cooked meat, but black-beer marinade did the best job, cutting the amount of PAHs in half compared with unmarinated pork.

Beer's antioxidant powers are attributed to flavonoids, natural compounds in barley and hops used to make beer. One particular flavonoid in hops, called xanthohumol, is said to be six times more effective than antioxidants in citrus and four times more potent than those in soy. When combined with a source of vitamin E (e.g., grapeseed oil in your marinade), xanthohumol's antioxidant powers are even stronger.

Ales have a higher antioxidant capacity than lager beers (e.g., lagers, Pilsners). That means better choices for marinating your sirloin include stouts, porters, dark ales, cream ales, IPAs (India Pale Ale) and pale ales.

There's another chemical that forms during high-heat cooking: heterocyclic amines or HCAs. They've also been shown to cause changes to DNA that could lead to cancer.

Evidence suggests high intakes of HCAs increase the risk of colorectal adenomas, benign polyps that can develop into cancer.

How much PAHs and HCAs end up in meat depends on how long you cook it, the grill temperature and how it's prepared. Practise the following tips to minimize their formation.

Marinate first: Certain ingredients in a marinade – beer, wine, tea, vinegar, citrus juice, vegetable oil and fresh herbs – can help prevent carcinogen formation. A marinade also acts as a barrier, keeping flames from touching meat and poultry.

Keep portions small: To cut time on the grill, use smaller cuts of meat. Instead of a whole steak, grill kebabs since they cook more quickly. For meats that require longer cooking times, partially cook in the microwave, drain away the juices, and then finish on the barbecue.

Lower the temperature: Turn the gas down or wait for the charcoal to become low-burning embers before grilling meat. (Oven-roasting and baking are done at lower temperatures so fewer chemicals are likely to form.)

Flip often: Continuously turning meat over can substantially reduce HCA formation. So can flipping burgers every minute versus only once after five minutes of cooking. To minimize juice drippings, use tongs or a spatula to turn foods rather than piercing meat with a fork.

Grill fish and shellfish: Most types have less fat than meat and take a shorter time to cook. Seafood also produces fewer HCAs when cooked.

Add fruit and vegetables: Eating plenty of flavonoid-rich foods – berries, cherries, red grapes, apples, citrus fruit, broccoli, kale, onions – may help offset the harmful effect of PAHs and HCAs. Research has also shown that adding one cup of mashed cherries to a pound of ground meat suppressed carcinogen formation in burgers by nearly 80 per cent.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.