Barbecuing still linked to cancer but adding one simple spice could completely change that

The curious anticarcinogenic properties of plain old pepper
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

First they came for sunshine. Then they came for alcohol. Then they came for red meat, particularly, the charbroiled variety. By "they" I, of course, mean cancer cells. The WHO's list of known carcinogens can read in parts like a harrowing attack on summer fun (non-seasonal items like birth control are listed too, btw). If playing with kittens and butterfly kisses are next, I won't be shocked. Still, one doctor fights the good fight with some decidedly tasty science.

Armed with a valiant heart, a love of food, sound data, and a pepper mill, Dr J. Scott Smith is fighting to defend some of the finer things from becoming categorical cancer causing no-nos. Barbecuing is high on his list.  As professor of food chemistry in the faculty of the Animal Sciences Department and Food Science Institute at Kansas State University, Smith grills a lot of meat with two goals in mind: fighting cancer and salvaging flavour. Long may his spatula sling burgers. His research recently uncovered the seemingly miraculous health benefits of fresh cracked pepper. In short, the kitchen spice staple significantly reduced the carcinogens commonly found in grilled meats. Any vegetarians out there thinking they're in the clear should chew on data that charbroiled vegetables also contain pretty high levels of some carcinogenic compounds. Barbecuing is the real baddie here.  

Smith's research doesn't cover grilled veggies but instead centers on meat. We've long known that nearly every creature's flesh (including most fish) takes on cancerous properties when grilled. The specific carcinogenic culprits are HCAs (heterocyclic amines), which form rapidly on the surface of chicken, beef, pork and fish when they're cooked at high temperatures (over a flavour-enhancing charcoal flame, for example). If you're worried that you need to have a long, difficult chat with your taste buds and salivary glands about why they'll never experience BBQ again, take note, Smith found that regular black pepper all but "eliminates the formation of heterocyclic amines." I'll repeat that so that you can justify reading this article during office hours – remarkably, peppercorns almost completely halted HCA production. Plain ol' pepper for the win.

The health benefits of Piper nigrum are pretty astounding. It's an antiviral that's been scientifically shown to assuage digestion, fight colds and help prevent everything from arthritis, Alzheimer's, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Obviously, take that with a grain of, well, common sense. By some accounts, straight up rubbing pepper into your skin could make you prettier. (Interesting aside: peppercorns were found stuffed into the nose of the mummified remains of Ramses II). Unsurprisingly, pepper's history is rich. It was once known as the "King of Spices" and used as currency – and that was when we just thought it made stuff taste good (and somehow helped mummy nostrils).  

That said, there is a clear tipping point with pepper where it can easily overpower a dish. Trial and error in Smith's test kitchen was a bit of taste challenge. One of his studies explored "mixing 1 gram of finely ground black pepper with 100 grams of ground beef". While the HCA halting benefits were spectacular, the resulting pepper patty lacked a certain palatability. Smith values flavour and health, in equal parts. A tasty and effective alternative, he says, is to blend pepper with other spices to balance out pepper's zing. He suggests antioxidants like oregano and garlic (my tongue suggests Montreal steak spice but it is not a doctor). "Blending pepper with antioxidant-rich spices works so well in ground beef patties and on steaks that the spice formulation eliminates nearly 100 percent of HCAs." Smith also confirms that his prior research in nom nom science showed marinating meat offered the same beneficial properties of pepper (even herbs and spices found in store-bought marinades did the trick). Only don't let your meat marinate too long (sound advice).

"Just a couple of hours is an ideal time for marinating," says Smith. "Some people might think that if a little time in the marinade does some good for the meat, then a lot of marinating time would do a lot of good, but marinating too long has the opposite effect because it can cause the antioxidants in the sauce to decompose."  

Smith admits that there is a careful dance to be maintained between tastiness and wellness. Eating dirty does taste good: I had a mountainous smoked meat poutine once that might be worth the cancer and heart disease it'll almost certainly give me one day. But making small, mindful choices can go a long way in bolstering your health. Healing spices aside, Smith asserts that minding cooking temperature also matters. Ideally, you don't want to cook over too high a heat (HCAs start forming at around 300 degrees Fahrenheit) but cooking below say 200 degrees (the safest temp for avoiding HCAs) won't yield the same palatability. In scientific terms, yumminess is sacrificed.

"It's a trade-off. Consumers want to have enough temperature to get flavor compounds developed from chemical reactions, but at the same time, they ought to limit the temperature by not raising it to the point of burning." You gotta roll the dice (and spice) in a manner that suits your tastebuds and sense of self-preservation.

Smith is clear, pepper remains your best barbecuing ally if prevention is a priority. Thankfully, there is no shortage of pepper heavy meat recipes. I'll let you hit that sweet spot of flavour and health on your own. But do slather on some sunscreen if you're grilling outdoors. And, you know, add pepper as needed.

Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen