Don’t you love to fire up the barbie and get grilling? Problem is, charcoal-grilling your meat leads to the creation of harmful chemical compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to increased risk for cancer.

Happy news: To reduce that risk and still let yourself savor some flame-cooked flavor, all you need to do is marinate the meat in one particular ingredient before cooking, a new study shows. It’s an ingredient you may already have in your fridge, but you probably never before thought of it as marinade material. What is it? Beer.

But take note—some beers work better than others…

TIPSY STEAK STUDY

For the new study, researchers from Portugal and Spain used 32 pork loin steaks, each about 3.5 ounces. Eight steaks were left unmarinated for the sake of comparison. The other steaks were each marinated in about 3.5 ounces of beer, with nothing else added, for four hours at 41°F (a typical refrigerator temperature).

Three different types of beer were used. Eight steaks were soaked in Pilsner beer (a light, golden lager)…eight in nonalcoholic Pilsner beer…and eight in black beer (schwarzbier in German, a dark-colored, medium-bodied ale). Then the steaks were patted dry and cooked on a hot charcoal grill about six inches above the charcoal. The cooking temperature was about 390° to 445°F, and the meat was cooked to an internal temperature of 167°F (medium-well to well-done). After cooking, the steaks were analyzed in the lab.

Results: Across the board, the beer reduced the formation of PAHs. The unmarinated steak had 20.57 nanograms of hydrocarbons for each gram of grilled meat (ng/g). In comparison…

  • Meat marinated in Pilsner beer had 17.82 ng/g of PAHs—a 13% reduction. 
  • Meat marinated in nonalcoholic beer had 15.50 ng/g of PAHs—a 25% reduction. 
  • Meat marinated in black beer had 9.74 ng/g of PAHs—a 53% reduction.In other words, all the beers helped…but black beer was the big winner, cutting the formation of the cancer-promoting compounds by more than half.

    No one knows for certain how PAHs form, but it’s generally believed that they are created when high cooking temperatures destroy, fuse or fragment molecules, releasing free radicals that recombine to form other harmful compounds. That is where beer’s antioxidant compounds become important. Reason: In another part of this study, the researchers measured the antioxidant capacities of the three different beers. While the Pilsner and the nonalcoholic Pilsner each showed significant and roughly equal activity in terms of “scavenging” free radicals, the black beer’s scavenging activity was about twice as great.

    DO TRY THIS AT HOME

    As for flavor, a beer marinade does lend a subtle beer flavor to the meat—you might or might not like that. And even though you’re discarding most of the beer marinade (unlike when you add wine to, say, a stew), the meat may retain some alcohol even after cooking, so if you want to avoid alcohol, opt for nonalcoholic beer as your marinade.

    More secrets to safer barbecuing: If you decide to try a beer marinade next time you grill, let us know how it goes! And if beer isn’t your cup of tea? Earlier studies have shown that you can cut back on the formation of harmful compounds while grilling by opting for leaner, thinner cuts of meat…using acidic ingredients in marinades, such as lemon juice and vinegar…coating the meat in antioxidant-rich garlic, spices and/or herbs (rosemary, turmeric, ginger, cumin) prior to cooking…and/or reducing the cooking temperature.

    Before your next barbecue: Check out the Bottom Line Guide to Great Grilling for dozens of ideas on the healthiest, safest, tastiest ways to grill lots of your favorite foods—meat, fish, poultry, veggies, even pizza!