Study finds black pepper curbs cancerous compounds in meat


If you like to grill but want to avoid the formation of cancerous compounds, be sure to have black pepper on hand.  A recent Kansas State University study discovered that this commonly used spice helps limit cancerous compounds in grilled meat.

J. Scott Smith, a professor of animal sciences and industry, found that black pepper nearly eliminates the formation of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs when it is cooked.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer recognizes HCAs as carcinogens.  Almost any meat, including beef, chicken, and most types of fish, can form these carcinogenic compounds.

For this recent study, Smith mixed 1 gram of finely ground black pepper with 100 grams of ground beef.  HCAs were indeed inhibited at this amount but the downfall was the pepper flavor was too strong and overwhelming to be pleasant.  To make it more palatable and to still be equally effective at inhibiting HCAs, another option is to blend pepper with other spices, such as oregano and garlic.

Smith has been a pioneer in research on carcinogens in meat and the use of various spices and marinades to help eliminate the risk from them.  In the past, Smith has helped to add to research showing that marinades and herbs work extremely well in limiting HCAs without sacrificing flavor.  Consumers can buy a basic store-bought marinade that will reduce HCAs to almost zero.  Smith advises though that less is more when it comes to marinades.  Marinate meat too long and it can cause the antioxidants in the sauce to decompose.  He recommends that the ideal length of time to marinade meat is for two hours. 

Professor Smith’s specialty has been on focusing the use of how antioxidant-rich spices can block the chemical formation of HCAs.  Smith has shown that when spices are applies to the surface of meat or even mixed into meat such as ground beef, the spices can drastically reduce the formation of HCAs.  The mint family of spices appears to be the most effective at inhibiting HCAs – rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, sage, and marjoram.  The myrtle family of spices is also known for this same ability and which include cloves and allspice. 

Other ways consumers can protect themselves from HCA formation when cooking meat is to grill them at low temperatures so the meat doesn’t burn or become charred or blackened.  HCAs are three to four times more common on meats that are burnt compared to meats cooked without burning. 

HCAs start forming at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit and commonly show up at and above 350 F. At the same time, if a person cooks their meat at too low of a temperature such as at 200 F, then it will be hard to produce a quality flavor.   The key is to cook the meat within the range of between 200 but no more than 300 F in order to get flavor compounds developed from chemical reactions but without causing the formation of cancerous HCAs.