Are Spices the Key to Safer Barbecuing?

Ah yes, summer is upon us and the backyard barbecue is blazing away.

There's all those burgers, half-cooked and loaded with potentially deadly organisms. Or burned to a crisp and coated with chemicals that can cause cancer.


But wait a minute. Is that great symbol of the American good life killing us? Or is throwing meat on the grill any more dangerous than cooking it in the kitchen?

Relax, says Scott Smith, a food chemistry professor at Kansas State University. It's not where you cook it. It's how. If you cook with too much heat, you're going to produce carcinogens. If you don't have enough heat, you're going to allow harmful bacteria to survive the cooking process.

You get the same results whether you cook it on the backyard barbecue, or in the kitchen. It's the heat that makes the difference, regardless of the source.

Spicy Solutions?

And these days it seems that every chef has his or her own cookbook out, lavishing praise on various spices. But are some of those spices helping? Or are they making the meal less healthy?

If you pick the right ones, they may actually be helping you avoid cancer, Smith says.

For years now, Smith has been studying certain carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines. Known as HCAs, these compounds are produced by cooking protein-rich muscle foods, and they have been linked to various cancers.

Smith is particularly intrigued with rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage. All those spices -- especially rosemary -- are loaded with antioxidants.

"Rosemary seems to be the one that has the most,'' Smith says, "but some others also have quite a few."

That's significant, he says, because antioxidants inhibit the formation of carcinogens by blocking the chemical reaction that produces HCAs.

Exacting Extraction

After chatting with Smith, I chopped up some fresh rosemary and dumped it on a burger as it blazed away on my backyard grill. Yuk. All I tasted was the rosemary, and therein lies a problem. Some compounds in rosemary are extremely volatile, thus explaining its pungent aroma, and they overwhelm the flavor of just about anything.

But here's the good news. Those volatile compounds aren't the ones with the goodies in them. The non-volatile compounds in rosemary and other spices are what's important here.

"These compounds are not very volatile, and you won't even smell them," Smith says. "They are the ones with the antioxidants that actually do the inhibiting."

A few companies, and researchers like Smith, are trying to figure out the best way to extract those helpful antioxidants so they can be added to sauces without overwhelming the food. But as yet, he says, you can't go to the grocery store and buy a can full of antioxidants that doesn't smell like rosemary.

Careful Cookouts

But that doesn't mean you can't do a lot to protect yourself.

As we noted, it's not where you cook the burger that counts, it's how. It takes higher temperatures, well above 300 degrees, for the carcinogenic compounds to form. So if you burn your burger on a grill, or fry it on the kitchen stove, you're going to get the same results if the heat is too high, Smith says. You're going to get an all-American meal loaded with stuff you shouldn't eat.

However, for some time now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been warning us that under-cooking, not over-cooking, may be the most dangerous. Especially when it comes to hamburger.

If the burger doesn't get hot enough, all kinds of critters can survive the cooking. So what's a body to do? The folks at the Department of Agriculture tell us the best defense is to push a thermometer into that burger and make sure it's at least 160 degrees before pulling it off the grill. Or 170 degrees for chicken breasts. Or 145 degrees for beef steaks, veal and lamb, and 160 degrees for all kinds of pork.

So there you are, armed with a thermometer to make sure you get that burger hot enough, but not too hot so that all those carcinogens form, as Smith warns.

Savor Some Smoke

If all this makes him sound like a party pooper, rest assured that Smith is a dedicated barbecue fan himself.

"You do get some benefits from barbecuing," he says.

For example, we've all heard that smoke is bad, and too much of it clearly is, but a little smoke coming from the barbecue is actually a good thing.

"Some of the smoke actually contains phenolic compounds, and those are antioxidants," he says. "Some are very potent antioxidants and they get coated on the surface of the product," be it meat, fish or fowl.

"I'm not knocking barbecuing," he says. "I do it all the time."

In time, he hopes, the non-volatile extracts from the spices he is studying might be available in grocery stores. That way we could make our burgers safer without having them taste and smell like rosemary.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.