Barbecue and Cherries

By Jacob Schor ND FABNO

2005 maybe?

              A bad news/good news story. The bad news is barbecued meat increases cancer risk. The good news: you can reduce this risk without becoming a vegetarian.

              The bad news first. The more meat people eat the more likely they are to get cancer, especially colon cancer. Odds vary with the way the meat is cooked. In general, the more done the meat, the higher the risk, the rarer the meat, the less the risk. As the meat is cooked, chemical reactions occur producing chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs for short) which when eaten damage cell DNA initiating the cancer process. Formation of HCAs varies with cooking method and doneness: barbecuing, broiling and frying produce the most, the more done the meats, the more HCAs, and the leaner the meat, the more HCAs.

High Risk

              What's the bottom line? People who prefer a well done steak are at greater risk than people who order their meat rare. Women who routinely eat very well done meat are five times as likely to get breast cancer as women who consume less done meat. Here is the worse part of the story: marinating steaks in a tomato based barbecue sauce before grilling INCREASES the amount of particularly nasty cancer causing chemicals by 300-400%.

Reduce Risk

              Now for the good news, and it isn't that summer's over and with it barbecue season....

The good news is that we can reduce the danger from cooking meat. Certain marinades, additions and beverages reduce the risk.

              Although marinating meat in a regular old style tomato based barbecue sauce increases the risk, certain other marinades have the opposite effect. An overnight soak in standard teriyaki sauce or a turmeric and garlic marinade reduces HCAs by half.

              Microwaving a hamburger patty for two minutes in a microwave before grilling reduces the HCAs by 90%. I haven't tried this, but rumor has it the finished burger has a consistency reminiscent of old running shoe liners.


              A dozen or so years ago, Ray Pleva, a Michigan butcher tried adding cherries to sausage. His daughter Cindy was the National Cherry Queen back then. Ray's cherry pecan sausage was a hit at the Traverse City Cherry Festival. Since then he's developed a full line of cherry enriched meat products. Cherry burgers are standard school lunch fare in 17 states. Adding cherry pulp to meat makes the burgers juicier (and yes, redder). The fruit also acts as an antioxidant so the meat stays fresh longer. Here's where this story gets interesting. The cherries prevent HCA formation. Pleva's cherry burgers have only 10% the HCAs as regular burgers.

              Other antioxidants will have the same effect if added to meat. Vitamin E, which has no taste, will reduce HCAs as much as cherries. One standard 400 iu Vitamin E capsule will "treat" 10 pounds of ground beef. Turmeric, the yellow Indian spice that gives curry its color is also an excellent antioxidant and can be used, but it does have a distinctive taste.

              More good news. Certain alcoholic libations defuse HCAs' harmful effects. When sake, brandy, or white wine are added to cell cultures they protect the cells from DNA damage by HCAs. Stout ale works the best, about 10 times more potent than any other libation. If you risk eating a charcoal broiled steak high in HCAs, wash it down with stout!

              What have I done with all these pieces of scientific trivia? First I threw out my jug of barbecue sauce. I now marinade anything I'm going to barbecue with a mixture that is heavily laced with Vitamin E (cut open a capsule and squeeze it into the oil), and I've developed a taste for turmeric. I'm experimenting with cherries. I recently soaked a butterflied leg of lamb in the following marinade, rolled it and roasted it. I served it to friends without discussing HCAs, cancer or cherries. Comments were that the lamb was exceptionally tender, juicy, and sweet. Not bad for "health food". We served a red wine but I suppose should have served a stout ale. Next time.

Experimental Cherry Marinade

1-1/2 cups frozen unsweetened pie cherries

3/4 Vidalia onion

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 Tbs turmeric

2 400 iu capsules of vitamin E (squeezed out)

2 Tbs  fresh rosemary

Peel from half a lemon and the juice

salt and pepper to taste

Puree everything in a blender. Marinate the meat overnight. Reserve 1/2 cup of marinade and mix it with flour to make a paste. Spread over the meat. Place in a hot oven (400º). Turn down immediately to 325º. Cook till done (rare!).

Jacob Schor, N.D. majored in Food Science and Product Development as an undergraduate at Cornell University, and received his doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine at National College in Portland, Oregon in 1991. He served as President of the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Physicians from 1992-1999 and maintains a private practice at the Denver Naturopathic Clinic.