How to BBQ a Healthier Burger

Adding herbs to a burger makes it healthier, new research suggests. (Image credit: Pam Roth/stock.xchng)

Hankering after a juicy burger? Try an herbal topping and indulge guilt-free.

Despite its notable nutrients — creatine, iron, B vitamins — ground beef spurs health fears from many directions. The American Heart Association frets over beef's saturated fat content, the main dietary cause of high cholesterol (which some link to heart disease), and scares us into choosing only the leanest red meat.

The Centers for Disease Control worry about contaminants, such as E. coli, salmonella and the prions that cause mad cow disease. Their warnings prod us to char our lean burgers into hockey pucks.

Then, just as we finally snuggle up to a burnt bite, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) screams, put down the beef! 

Colorectal cancer risk increases 15 percent with every extra 1.7-oz serving (about half the amount in a wimpy fast food burger) eaten daily over the 18-oz. weekly allotment of red meat, according to the AICR's 2007 Expert Report, "Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective." They now plead for us to restrict red meat consumption and to avoid processed meats, such as sausage and hotdogs, altogether. 

But don't let this news dampen your barbecue! Just reach for the spice rack.

Studies show that herbs in the Lamiaceae family — such as rosemary, sage, and oregano — may keep meat from causing cancer. As part of an ongoing Food Safety Consortium project at Kansas State University, researchers found that burgers marinated with rosemary had 70 to 80 percent less heterocyclic amines (HCAs) than those bathed in a plain marinade. HCAs mutate DNA and are suspected carcinogens.

Researcher J. Scott Smith explains: When you throw a raw steak or patty on a hot grill, the meat's amino acids and sugars produce unstable compounds called free radicals. These radicals then react with beef's creatine to make HCAs.

Herbal antioxidants halt this process. They chemically soothe free radicals before they start creating mutagens all over your basic backyard burger or a beautiful Porterhouse steak.

While marinades are best because they cover the whole surface, simply shaking on dried herbs may reap the same health benefits.

"Barbeque sauces seem to work too," Smith added. Just make sure you shake or smear on spices before you get to the grill. Once the cooking process begins, the HCAs are there to stay, Smith said.

If you don't want your cookout wafting of rosemary, basil or worse (mint helps too), Smith advises using herbal extracts easily found online. Extracts, he explains, have no aroma or flavor but contain "the most vital part of the plant" — the antioxidant.

Robin Nixon Pompa

Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.