Grilling science: Marinades, rubs put healthier spin on summertime favorite

On more than one occasion, I've heard some of my friends say that grilling is a science. I'd never given it much thought until this past week, when researching a column about marinades and rubs.

Jeff Tiedeman
Jeff Tiedeman

On more than one occasion, I've heard some of my friends say that grilling is a science. I'd never given it much thought until this past week, when researching a column about marinades and rubs.

And while what I learned may not come as a surprise to some people, it opened my eyes to the health benefits of a couple of cooking techniques that many take for granted.

While I did know that the substance that forms on meats cooked at high temperatures (such as from grilling, frying or broiling meat) includes compounds (heterocyclic amines, more commonly known as HCAs) that researchers say are "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," studies are showing that marinades and rubs may hold the key to healthier grilled meats.

I've been a big fan of marinades over the years, especially one that includes honey, teriyaki, orange juice and rosemary. I love the way grilled pheasant, elk and venison tastes after it's been sitting in the sauce for a couple of hours. But as far as rubs, I have all sorts of them in my cupboard that never have been used.

According to a study published in The Journal of Food Science and research at Kansas State University, using spiced-based marinades and rubs on your grilled meats -- along with adding a boost of flavor -- also may cut the amount of possible cancer-causing HCAs you consume.


In the Journal of Food Science study, the authors allowed beef steak to sit for an hour in one of three store-bought marinades -- Caribbean, Southwest and herb. They also soaked beef in these same marinades, with their spices removed, and in an oil-vinegar mixture used in all the marinades.

After grilling the steaks, all spice-marinated meats showed the most dramatic reduction in total HCAs. The meat soaked in the spiceless marinades lowered HCAs a moderate amount compared to the nonmarinated meat. And the meat marinated in the oil-vinegar mixture alone had no major effect on HCA levels.

(The Caribbean marinade contained thyme, red and black pepper, allspice, rosemary and chives; the Southwest marinade was made with paprika, red pepper, oregano, black pepper, garlic and onion; the herb marinade was prepared with oregano, basil, onion, jalapeno, parsley and red pepper.)

Marinades also receive high marks from the American Institute for Cancer Research ( ). The AICR says by using a marinade before grilling, you can reduce HCA by 92 percent to 99 percent.

In the KSU research, Dr. J. Scott Smith found that adding rosemary extract to ground beef reduced the amount of cancer-causing compounds created during grilling. He attributed this to the antioxidants found in the rosemary extract. (Smith said whole, crushed or ground rosemary would have the same effect as the more expensive extract and also could be rubbed onto the surface of steak, pork chops, chicken or fish.)

Other herbs such as basil, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory and thyme, which also promote antioxidant and polyphenol activity, more than likely have the same effect. (Check out recipe for Mediterranean Rosemary Rub at event/tag/group/Features/tag/food/.)

With information and recipes like this, I could develop an appetite for science.

Tiedeman is food editor at the Herald. Reach him at 780-1136 or toll-free at (800) 477-6572, or e-mail at .

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