Nothing dampens an enthusiasm for grilling like knowing that dining on meat after it’s been cooked at high temperatures heightens the risk of several cancers. But don’t hang up your tongs just yet. Instead, invite the allium family to dinner.
The plant genus that includes onions and garlic, alliums house powerful substances that may shield the body from grill-induced carcinogens.
Grilling, pan-frying, and barbecuing red meat, poultry, or fish triggers a troublesome trifecta — amino acids, sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle meat) — that adds up to carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCA) that can damage the body’s DNA, making it easier for cancer to gain a toehold.
Studies suggest that adding alliums to meat marinades can offset the risks. One study in particular found that marinating meat in onion, garlic, and lemon juice lowered HCAs by as much as 70 percent. (Vitamin C in lemons is also a powerful antioxidant.)
To ignite alliums’ cancer-fighting enzymes, you must damage the plant’s cell walls. So prep with an eye toward pulverizing: Dice or mince onions; crush garlic in a press. Once they are prepped, allow alliums to rest for 10 minutes to heighten flavor and enzymatic activity.
“Alliums are nature-made defense agents against cancer,” says Kathie Swift, RDN, LDN, cofounder of the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy.
If you are a guest at someone else’s grill, tap the power of alliums by layering a slice of red onion atop your burger or sprinkling diced white onions on your hot dog or bratwurst. (For more on alliums’ health benefits, “All About Alliums“.)
This article originally appeared as “Lowering Grilled Meat’s Cancer Risk” in the October 2021 issue of Experience Life.
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