Beer and Barbecue Really Do Belong Together: A Lesson in Cancer Prevention

Fireworks bursting in the sky.  A cooler overflowing with beer.  Wide, open flames kissing a steak with that earthen char.  You can smell it now; the quintessential American experience that is a summer barbecue brings all of this to mind.

South Africa has Braai Day, Ha!

South Africa has Braai Day, Ha!

Whether it be the braai of our meat-loving South African friends, the asado of Argentina or the barbie of the Kiwis and Aussies, grilled meat is sacred to many cultures the world over.

But cancer is never on the menu.  At least explicitly.

In fact, if you asked most people, barbecues are probably the last thing they would think of when they hear cancer.  For our friends with a family history of cancer, however, it may be one of the first places to look.

Connecting the Pieces

The idea that meat, red meat in particular, causes cancer has actually been established in scientific literature for some time.  Since studies observing the eating patterns of 1970s-era America were published, we have known there was an association between meat and certain types of cancer.  It was first assumed some of the same mechanisms that were thought to create heart disease back in the 1970s, like consumption of foods high in saturated fat and harmful chemicals, were the same culprits that led to these higher rates of cancer.

Not everyone bought into that idea though.

Watch out for nice grill marks

Watch out for nice grill marks

More sophisticated observations in the 1990s disproved that initial guess.  Instead, newer studies identified the charred parts of well-done meats specifically as cancer forming.  These studies implicated a little known compound called HCA (Heterocyclic Amines).  The National Institute of Health’s own review of HCA’s and barbecued meats in 2004 found enough evidence to publicly state HCA’s increase the risk of stomach, colon, pancreatic and breast cancers.

These HCAs are a class of carcinogens that appear to form when muscle meats are cooked at very high temperatures, like those found in a skillet or on a barbecue.  They are concentrated in the charred, blackened portion of the meat and associated drippings that are usually used to make gravy.  Even though they appear in greater numbers in more charred meats, there is a way to neutralize them.

Marinades to the rescue?

Very recent research shows simply marinating meat products in red wine or beer dramatically reduces the exposure to HCAs.  Marinades of beer and red wine were applied to steaks and studied beside normal pan-fried meats in this latest research.  Both marinades cut down the amount of HCA’s created during cooking, by up to 88% in one of the tests.  For each additional two hours the meat was allowed to marinate, proportionally more HCA’s were eliminated when cooked.  Beer was judged to be the better of the two options, because it had a more dramatic effect on HCA production and did not impart the strong color and odors of a red wine marinade.  Read about the study here:


Effect of Beer and Wine on HCAs, Credit: J. Agric. Food Chem

Other earlier studies have come to similar conclusions about chicken marinated in wine, showing a similar decrease in HCA of nearly 90%Tumeric-garlic sauce, teriyaki and olive oil marinades also had positive effects on HCA production.  Interestingly though, BBQ sauce caused HCA production to increase, which reinforces the idea that more research is needed to uncover the real mechanisms at work here.

Moving Forward

This research does not necessarily mean you have to give up meat altogether.  Meats provide an invaluable array of vitamins, minerals and amino acids that are hard to find together in other foods.  Still, most Americans consume a staggering amount of meat – around 200 pounds a year (.pdf link), according to the USDA.  Reducing this amount, even slightly, would have many benefits, beyond HCA intake.

Here is a short list of what you can do:

  • Marinating your meats in beer or wine for at least 30 minutes to reduce HCA (the longer the better)
  • Cook your meat at a lower heat, which stymies HCA formation
  • Get protein from other sources like free-range eggs, organic goat’s milk or wild rice

Research about HCAs definitely shows progress but not yet conclusive evidence of how we should proceed.  The ways in which alcoholic marinades are inactivating HCA formation remains unknown; further work will elucidate these connections.  For now, we know that marinating all barbecued meats in alcoholic liquids dramatically reduces the risk of HCAs.  It is an easy and recommended step the next time you barbecue.  We look forward to additional research that fully explains how alcohol stops HCA from forming.