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May 18, 2017

You probably thought the worst thing on your baby back ribs was the fat clinging to the bones. But your summer barbecue comes with a bigger concern: grilled meats often form carcinogenic compounds—cancer-causing substances—when they're heated. 

That's the bad news as we head toward our Memorial Day cookouts. But the good news is that recent research shows there's a very easy way to make grilled meats, including beef, pork, and chicken, safer to eat: simply add ground black pepper. 

Kansas State University professor J. Scott Smith recently launched a study to see if a spice—ground black pepper—could reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines, a carcinogenic compound, on grilled meat as they cook. First, he mixed one gram of finely ground black pepper with 100 grams of ground beef and placed it on a grill. The ratio was effective at inhibiting HCAs, but, alas, the beef was rendered inedible. 

So Smith tried again, this time adding oregano and garlic to the pepper and cooking the meat. The carcinogens were reduced, and the meat was more than palatable. 

"Blending pepper with antioxidant-rich spices works so well in ground beef patties and on steaks that the spice formulation eliminates nearly 100 percent of HCAs," he said in a report. "In these cases, the spices are added at a level that is quite practical, so the result is flavorful and healthy."

What are the best carcinogenic compound fighting spices? They come from the mint family, Smith says, and include rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, sage and marjoram, and the myrtle family, which includes cloves and allspice. 

In even more good news: dry spice rubs aren't the only way to beat back bad HCAs. Smith has also found that adding marinades can limit carcinogenic compounds, too. In fact, you don't even have to make the marinade yourself; store-bought marinades have the capability to reduce HCAs in meats almost entirely, Smith says. The key to using marinades to limit carcinogenic compounds is to quickly marinate your meat. 

"Some people might think that if a little time in the marinade does some good for the meat, then a lot of marinating time would do a lot of good, but marinating too long has the opposite effect," Smith said. That's because over-marinating meat "can cause the antioxidants in the sauce to decompose. Just a couple of hours is an ideal time." At least from a health standpoint. 

The last way you can prevent HCAs from forming on your grilled meats is to cook them low and slow, Smith said. Carcinogenic compounds start to form at about 300 degrees, and really kick in at 350 degrees. Cooking meats at just below 300 degrees is ideal for warding off HCAs and maintaining the best flavors, he said.