Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer

Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer – well, it’s in New Scientist magazine, so it must be true.

Normally I’m deeply sceptical of “eating/drinking X gives you/prevents Y” stories but this one was so wonderful I had to repeat it.

A lady called Isabel Ferreira, an assistant professor at the Department of Bromatology* at the University of Porto in Portugal and her colleagues have been experimenting with marinating beer steaks in beer before pan-frying them.

The idea was to see if this would cut down on the levels of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HAs) that are created when the steaks were fried or grilled, with the heat of the cooking converting the sugars and amino acids in muscle tissue into HAs.

The trouble with HAs is that, while they probably help to make the cooked steak taste good, they do appear to be associated with an increased risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute in the United States says its researchers found that

those who ate their beef medium-well or well-done had more than three times the risk of stomach cancer than those who ate their beef rare or medium-rare.

The old statistician’s caveat applies here: three times not very much is still not very much. But if you’re worried that your love of well-cooked T-bone is going to kill you, can marinating it in beer first help?

The answer, Ms Ferreira found, was yes, most definitely: six hours of marinating steaks in beer (or, to be fair, red wine) slashed levels of two types of HA by up to 90 per cent when those steaks were cooked  compared with cooked but unmarinated steak. Beer was more efficient at reducing levels of a third type of heterocyclic amine than wine, cutting levels significantly on cooking after four hours’ marinating, while wine took six.

What’s even better, tasters also preferred the smell, taste and appearance of beer-marinated steak, Ms Ferreira says. Looks good, tastes good, and by golly, it really does do you good.

Why does the marinating trick work? Both beer and wine contain water-retaining sugars, but beer contains more of them than wine and Ms Ferreira suggests that these sugars may hinder the transport of water-soluble molecules to the steak’s surface, where high heat converts them into HAs.

I’d like to tell you more about Ms Ferreira’s experiments, but unfortunately the miserable barstewards at the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry want $30 (£20, currently) for 48 hours’ access to just this one article. This is dimwit economics: their costs are sunk, and if they had made the charge $5 a go, I’d have thought that little enough, and they would have got an incremental $5. As it is, they get nothing – losers.

However, I’ve emailed Ms Ferreira, and I hope to bring you news of the actual beers she used to marinate the steaks. If it’s water-soluble sugars you’re after, though, I’d say you needed something sweet and dark: a Manns-style brown ale, a sweet stout or a Burton or old ale, for example. Nothing too hoppy, though: hop flavours get very bitter indeed when overheated.

This all gives me the opportunity to cover another beer-and-cancer story, which is an excellent example of how talking about comparative risk is useless, and hugely, criminally misleading, without talking about the absolute risk involved as well. The World Cancer Research Fund would like to scare you with the idea that “Drinking only one pint of beer a day increases the risk of liver and bowel cancer by a fifth”. But by a fifth of what? Ah – if they told you that, you’d realise this really isn’t so much of a big deal.

A rough calculation using the figures in this story suggests that among non-drinkers 20 in a thousand die of bowel or liver cancer, while among drinkers 25 in a thousand die of bowel or liver cancer. In other words, by drinking beer your absolute risk of dying of bowel or liver cancer rises by five in a thousand, or 0.5 per cent. You may feel giving up the pleasures of beer when there’s a 99.5 per cent chance you’ll die of something un-beer related anyway is worth it … but as my friend Brenda says, if you stay in bed all day, eventually the ceiling will fall down and kill you

* Me neither – “The doctrine or consideration of food, its nature, quality, and uses”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from the Greek word for food, as in the scientific name for chocolate, theobroma, or “food of the gods”.

0 thoughts on “Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer

  1. I am saved! I will live forever!! My life is going to be exactly like Mamamia!!![!].

    Why? I have been soaking my summery ribeye steaks in Bamburgian rauchbier for yoinks. Tasty and, now scientists say, good for you.

    1. Ben Goldacre is one of my heroes … ironically, the Guardian’s version of the “twice as likely to get bowel cancer” story appeared on the page after one of his columns.

  2. FYI, there was a similar experiment by a German food scientist, Udo Pollmer, a few years back – with excellent results for those of us who like to cook, and grill, with beer.

  3. Europeans, especially Belgians cook their meat, especially the “carbonade recipe and stews” with beer and they have been doing this for ages- my mother cooked like that and I do the same even if I did not know the health benefits of it- have been doing it just for the test!
    In nursing homes it’s even imperative. I worked for a summer internship in a nursing home there, and all the meat meals ( red as well as white) were always marinated , or cooked with either beer or wine. Always.
    Have never seen a meat meal without that. Americans, with their huge consumption of burgers (and red meat in general) should have understood this since along time. Especially if your meal is accompanied with sodas!!! EERK!!!!! Terrible for your health and horrible for the taste by the way!

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