J. Scott Smith, professor of animal sciences and industry, found that black pepper nearly eliminates the formation of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which can form on the surface of meat when it is cooked. HCAs are recognized as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, and the National Toxicology Program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Almost any meat, including beef, pork, chicken and most types of fish, can form the carcinogenic compounds.
In one study, Smith mixed 1 gram of finely ground black pepper with 100 grams of ground beef. The formulation worked very well at inhibiting HCAs, but the pepper flavor was too strong to be pleasant, Smith said. A more palatable and equally effective option is to blend pepper with other spices, like oregano and garlic.
“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 said. “In these cases, the spices are added at a level that is quite practical, so the result is flavorful and healthy.”
Dr. Stegall’s Comments: Centuries of experience have taught us that there is medicinal value to various herbs and spices. This article provides a wonderful example of this, as adding black pepper and other spices to meat reduces its cancer-causing potential (not to mention enhancing its flavor). In addition to this advice, I also recommend being very careful not to overcook meats. Well done meats, to the point of visible charring, is thought to make the meat more harmful in terms of HCAs. Medium or medium-well seems like an appropriate amount of “done-ness,” serving as a balance between under-cooking and over-cooking.