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Embrace the Spice: How the Right Marinade Can Decrease Cancer Risk

Updated: Sep 5, 2018

The official title of my graduate school thesis was “Inhibiting the formation of carcinogenic heterocyclic aromatic amines in food through smarter cooking methods.” The short version? “Why marinades matter when you'd rather not get cancer.”

Basically, if any item of food is mostly protein (i.e. beef, chicken, seafood) and it’s cooked at high temperatures, carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic aromatic amines form. It’s not that they DON’T form in other foods, but for example, a vegan patty grilled right next to a beef burger patty will only form about 10% of the HAA’s that form in the beef.

Why is this a problem? Mutations to DNA and cancer.

Your body partially breaks down these HAA’s while trying to get nutrients from food, and then these HAA’s bind to the DNA in your GI tract and beyond, setting the scene for colorectal and other types of cancers to develop. Anything the mutates DNA is a bad thing, and the amount of HAA’s the average meat eater consumes a day can be REALLY significant. My thesis was born when I was faced with this fact and the realization that the people I loved most weren't all going to drop their burger habits tomorrow and become vegan. I wanted to figure out a practical approach to decreasing this daily DNA mutation occurence with easy cooking methods in order to dampen the whopping health risk that comes from eating animal meats.

The solutions? Truly, they couldn't be easier. There's been a burst of research on this topic in recent years, and studies show that the easiest and best solutions are to cook meats at lower temperatures (fried food is overwhelmingly the worst offender) and use some great herb and plant-based spices and liquid marinades to DECREASE their formation. By up to 98%, depending on what you use and the kind of meat! Research shows the best options include red wine, dark beer, garlic, onion powder, artichoke and rosemary extracts. But there are LOTS of options: Peppers. Italian spices. Traditional asian species. There are some great, effective herb-marinade-meat matches, but when in doubt, go spice crazy, add a heaping amount of garlic, and get liberal with the wine.

Certain herbs and marinades work better for different types of meat and to prevent specific HAA’s. As I continue to get more and more into the research, I’ll lay out better specifics to make cooking at home easier. My plan is to make the information easy to read, digest, and utilize on a daily basis. So stay tuned!

*Though based in research, personal, and clinical experience, the opinions in this article should not be taken as medical advice. Botanical medicine and nutriceuticals should be treated with the same caution and care as pharmaceuticals, as both have the potential for strong, potentially adverse effects and allergic reactions. Please consult a trained herbal medicine practitioner, licensed Naturopathic Doctor, or licensed Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine before attempting treatment.


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