It is a well known epidemiological fact that those of us who eat a diet that has a strong bias towards meat -– especially red meat -– have a significantly increased risk of developing cancers of the pancreas, colon, breast and prostate. The reason for this is that a number of carcinogens are found in meat; the most potent of these being the heterocyclic amines (HCA).
The interesting thing about these mutagenic chemicals is that they are only formed when meat is cooked -– and the higher the cooking temperature, the greater the quantity of HCAs produced. In other words, meat that is browned, burnt or cooked at a temperature of greater than 200°C has the highest levels of HCAs whereas underdone meat has the lowest levels of these harmful compounds. Because of the low temperatures used in these cooking modalities, microwaving or boiling meat produces very low levels of HCAs. Moreover, microwaving meat for two minutes before cooking by other methods can reduce the formation of HCAs by up to 90%!
Incidentally it is only muscle meat (from beef, pork chicken and fish) that forms HCAs as it contains a compound called creatine which, when heated, reacts with the amino acids in meat to form these HCAs. Organ meats such as liver and kidneys do not form HCAs as they do not contain creatine.
The good news for those that can't live without their barbecues and Cajun meat dishes is that many spices contain an array of antioxidants that go a long way to neutralizing HCAs (as well as other cancer promoting compounds).
Spices contain the highest antioxidant activity of all food groups including fruit and vegetables (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006) and several of them have been tested to see if they can neutralize the HCAs produced during the cooking of meat. The "Mediterranean" spices such as rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano ,and sage have been shown to reduce the levels of HCAs by up to 80% while "Eastern" spices such as cinnamon, ginger and the Chinese 5 spices powder (that commonly contains five of the following spices: cinnamon, ginger, fennel, cloves, pepper, anise or star anise) have shown similar neutralizing effects.
While marinating meat in a spice mix prior to cooking is a very effective way to reduce HCA levels, adding a range of spices to the meat and other dishes will also go a long way to reducing the impact of these toxic, carcinogenic compounds. In fact culinary herbs and spices have so many valuable health promoting properties that they should be routinely included in all meals.
For the past thirty years Keith Scott has worked as a medical doctor in both city and rural practices in Southern Africa, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. During that period he has incorporated complementary medicine into his medical practice and has co-authored two previous books including the best selling, Natural Home Pharmacy. Both books have been translated into several different languages. He has also appeared on numerous TV and radio programs and has written health related articles for newspapers and magazines. For more on how you can incorporate the healthful properties of spices into you diet and enjoy their flavorful benefits, visit Medspice.
© 2009 Dr. Keith Scott
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