I founded Legion Athletics to create healthy, high-quality sport supplements based on sound science, and to sell them honestly and at a fair price. I believe that using honesty, integrity, and facts to build a business is better than cutting corners and spreading lies and misinformation. And that’s why I don’t just want to sell you pills and powders. I want to change the supplement..
If you want to know what Boswellia serrata is, why people take it, and whether or not it can benefit you, then you want to read this article.
Boswellia serrata is a traditional Indian medicine used to reduce pain that’s become a popular supplement for reducing joint pain.
It appears to be highly effective for reducing joint pain, and it may also improve gut health and reduce the risk of several types of cancer.
Boswellia serrata currently is only well proven to fight joint inflammation, but the evidence for it’s anticancer and other health properties is growing.
If there is one major difference between the pharmaceutical and herbal approach to things, it would be dirtiness.
No, I’m not referring to the fact that one is synthesized in a sterilized laboratory whereas the other is plucked from the ground after you flick a few bugs off of it—although that also makes sense. I’m talking pharmaceutical dirtiness.
Clean drugs have one action and one action only.
Dirty drugs have many different actions and a ton of unforeseen side effects.
Clean and dirty compounds exist in both pharmacy and nutritional supplements but ultimately, pharmacy gives you one compound. Herbs, by nature of being powdered plants that once lived, have numerous compounds in them.
These numerous compounds could have unforeseen dangerous side-effects which would preclude their usage. This is a major reason why most medical doctors wait until there’s a LOT of evidence before recommending something.
However, if the dirtiness of a drug is somewhat limited (in the realm of being able to predict its effects rather than getting blindsided by something) then we enter the realm of “happy little side effects.”
Fiber should increase flatulence, not decrease it, but that’s a nice surprise with the mixed soluble/insoluble fiber.
Nobody predicted fish oil could protect neurons from intense exercise, but it does, so that’s cool.
Yup, that’s what we’re going to be talking about today.
Boswellia serrata, a joint health supplement that we use in Fortify because it’s bloody swell for the joints, may have some unforeseen happy little side effects for preventing cancer.
Now, when that section comes I will be cautious in my wording, but I will state one thing outright. We live in a world where damn near any herb is claimed to be “anti-cancer” due to either nonsense or the fact that it managed to kill a single cancer cell in a petri dish.
Boswellia serrata is in the grey territory of not being a proven cancer fighter but, damn, it is indeed putting up a fight with some of these studies.
What Is Boswellia Serrata?
Boswellia serrata, also known as Indian frankincense, is an herb.
It’s used as both a traditional Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine and aromatic burnt at ceremonies.
Boswellia serrata has traditionally been used to “benumb the senses.” It’s been used as a tranquilizer in Ethiopia and has been given with wine to ease prisoners before they are executed (according to the Jewish talmud.)
Happily enough, we don’t use it these days for executions. We use it for joint health!
Cause whether you want to walk to the grocery store or whether your head is on the chopping block and an overly hairy and chesty man with an eye-less hooded mask is spitting into his hands, it’s nice to feel less pain.
Boswellia serrata is, by far, most commonly used to support joint health.
It’s commonly paired with curcumin since, as we will get into in the next section, there are mechanistic reasons as to why the two can be argued to be synergistic (or at the very least, additive, in their benefits to joint health.)
However, Boswellia serrata has also been subject to the “hur dur anti-inflammatory” treatment and, since it’s also an antioxidant, has been recommended for a wide range of conditions from joint and intestinal health to merely improving skin and hair quality while destroying cancer.
Such is the fate of traditional medicines. They have to go through the shame circuit of alternative medicine pining for them being a cure-all before they settle into their niches.
Once the hype dies down, will the herb still be renowned for the reasons people take it?
What Are the Benefits of Boswellia Serrata?
The claimed benefits of Boswellia serrata that are notable all tie back into its anti-inflammatory properties. These include:
Reducing joint inflammation
Reducing intestinal inflammation
Improving overall health
Whereas other claims that surround this herb include:
Reducing brain edema
Reducing headaches and migraines
However, as for claims that are actually based on some degree of evidence …
Boswellia Serrata and Joint Inflammation
The primary function of Boswellia serrata is secondary to “boswellic acids,” a group of LOX inhibitors.
Lipoxygenase (LOX) is an enzyme similar to cyclooxygenase (COX) in concept, an enzyme that turns otherwise inert or anti-inflammatory mediators into inflammatory ones. It’s a vital enzyme when you need to surmount an inflammatory defense of the body.
However, excess activation of this enzyme has similar side-effects as excess activation of COX. You simply have too much inflammation floating around.
The boswellic acids, specifically the major one known as AKBA, potently inhibit this enzyme.
However, it should be noted that while similar in concept they are indeed two different enzymes. While over the counter NSAIDs like Ibuprofen and Naproxen, as well as supplements like curcumin all target COX, Boswellia serrata is the only potent herb known to target LOX.
In other words, Boswellia serrata is the “two” punch of the one-two anti-inflammatory punch. The “one” is pretty interchangeable.
This anti-inflammatory effect has been most well studied in the context of osteoarthritis, both when Boswellia serrata is studied alone and when it is studied alongside curcumin (to test the one-two punch theory.)
The combination is better than either one alone, more effective than the pharmaceutical reference celecoxib, and Boswellia serrata alone has been testedmultipletimes with reliable benefits over placebo. Notably, herbal supplements with Boswellia serrata do not work for rheumatoid arthritis so the benefits don’t extend to auto-immunity.
The above is why we use curcumin and Boswellia serrata in Fortify, but then throw in UC-II collagen due to it having unique benefits to rheumatism.
Finally, Boswellia serrata has been noted to oddly help reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis within a week, normally far too short a time for anti-inflammatories to work. This may be due to how Boswellia serrata simply has pain-reducing properties in the brain outright.
So collectively, it benefits inflammation of the joints in a way that works alongside COX inhibitors like curcumin or Ibuprofen while also conferring fast-acting pain reducing effects that can benefit otherwise healthy young people.
Boswellia serrata is a proven joint health supplement, but it’s best claim to fame is how it has a relatively unique function that works well with other joint health supplements.
Other studies note potent effects in ulcerative colitis, causing 82% of subjects to go into remission, and less potent effects in Crohn’s disease where 59.9% of subjects in remission stayed in remission with Boswellia serrata (but 55.3% of placebo did, so small gap.)
Beyond the intestines, the combination of curcumin and Boswellia serrata has also been investigated for kidney health with twostudies finding reduced levels of inflammation in the blood thought to be reflective of improved kidney health. That data, however, is more preliminary.
The anti-inflammatory effects of Boswellia serrata seem to extend beyond the joints, but when this happens the potency of it is a bit unpredictable. Seems to be a decent enough choice for intestinal inflammation, but more research is needed overall.
I want to be careful with my words here. Boswellia serrata is promising for cancer.
I say this for it’s particular interactions with pancreatic cancer (the most lethal form of cancer), brain cancer (the scariest, in my opinion), and breast cancer (one of the five most common.)
Firstly, when it comes to pancreatic cancer. 100 mg/kg AKBA in mice (16 mg/kg estimated human dose) has been shown to half pancreatic tumor size, and this was later confirmed in another study. While mice and humans do differ, human cancer cells (not in human bodies) have been suppressed from Boswellia serrata.
This is due to Boswellia serrata, related to being an anti-inflammatory, suppressing growth and invasion of tissue (the ability of tissue to grow and spread uncontrolled) via what is known as the Cysteine X Cysteine chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4) that is highly involved in metastasis.
Specifically, the “big boss” of inflammation known as nF-kB would normally tell CXCR4 to start being produced more and do more work but Boswellia serrata interferes with them communicating with each other. This is also seen in leukemia, myeloma, and breast cancer cells.
Metastasis refers to the process of a tumor being in one area and deciding to just go somewhere else, like a node of lung cancer just breaking off and floating down to the bone—when this happens it usually signals the cancer is getting MUCH worse.
No human studies appear to exist at this point in time on Boswellia serrata and pancreatic cancer.
However, despite the lack of human data, it remains interesting because some people are going to take boswellia anyways for joint issues—pancreatic cancers deadliness comes from an inability to detect it until it’s too late so every little bit helps.
There’s also a case study of Boswellia serrata “curing brain cancer.”
To clarify, by “curing” I mean there was breast cancer that metastasized to a woman’s brain yet the introduction of 800 mg Boswellia serrata eliminated the presence of the tumor as evidenced by CT scans.
This case study is supported by general anti-cancer effects of Boswellia serrata in glioma cancer cells (rodent data) showing up to a 65.7% reduction in tumor size after two weeks.
Supplementation also seemed to prevent tumors from becoming big—they were limited to only being small tumor clusters.
However, further human studies on this topic are merely in brain edema from irradiation (side-effect of chemotherapy) but Boswellia serrata did indeed show protective effects, with 60% of patients reporting benefits compared to 26% of placebo.
Finally, in keeping the trend, Boswellia serrata has been studied (alongside betaine and myo-inositol) in two human studies on breast cancer. Both found positive effects—the tumors were actually reduced in size, a feat dietary supplements rarely achieve and, when they do, is notable.
First, it’s preliminary data. It’s imprudent to extrapolate rodent data onto humans but we have just enough human data to pique our interest that this isn’t going to be a mouse-only issue.
Secondly, the fact that it has no side-effects reported in the human trials so far paired with the fact that there is another reason to take it (for joint health, mostly) shows that this could be the most happy of side-effects.
And just to state outright. Usually when you hear of “anti-cancer” herbs you have in vitro studies where an overdose killed a cancer cell (damn near anything can do that.) Boswellia serrata, causing 50% or more reductions in tumor size in mice and some human data, is in another ballpark.
Boswellia serrata is not, currently, a “proven” cancer fighter but it definitely has convincing preliminary evidence that may apply to humans. Furthermore, this protective effect applies to two of the scariest cancer types; pancreatic and brain.
The section title is a bit of a misnomer here since Boswellia serrata is not yet proven to not do anything. That said, people claim it does many things without any evidence, so it’s worth looking at those claims, too.
Boswellia Serrata and Migraines
Boswellia serrata seems to be one of a few herbs that’s used for headaches but, unlike something like feverfew or caffeine, it does not have any evidence for this use yet.
However, it does have evidence for it affecting the brain (and reducing edema to boot) and has general pain-reducing properties even beyond inflammation—it seems reasonable to assume that it may play a role in at least reducing the pain of migraines.
Boswellia Serrata and Mood
Boswellia serrata is claimed to help with mood and, I guess for people with a lot of pain it’s true?
The previous studies showing benefits of this plant on joint health took various measures to assess how well Boswellia serrata “worked” and among them was a simple question—how do you feel?
Turns out that having your joint pain reduced puts you in a better mood.
However, to outright claim that Boswellia serrata improves mood is a bit misguided. It does not yet have any evidence to suggest an improvement in mood outright, just when pain is reduced.
Boswellia Serrata and Immunity
As a general rule of thumb, anti-inflammatories are anti-immunity while pro-inflammatories are pro-immunity. It’s not an absolute rule, with notable exceptions, but it’s reliable enough.
It’s important to remember this since most herbs, in their hype days, are labelled with both of these claims simultaneously and rarely do both claims end up being true.
In the case of Boswellia serrata, the only evidence we have right now is the fact that there’s a part of the plant called BOS 2000 that affects the immune system. While an incredible name for cybernetic management it’s imprudent to extrapolate this data to humans right now.
What Is the Clinically Effective Dose of Boswellia serrata?
The clinically effective dose of boswellia depends on what form you are taking.
Studies using the gum resin (the most crude form of supplementation) tend to use between 1,200 to 2,000 mg of the gum resin each day, split into three doses taken with meals. The crude form tends to have about 3% AKBA.
Most supplementation these days use some form of Boswellia serrata that has an increased AKBA content, due to studies using the patented forms of Aflapin and 5-Loxin which increase the levels of the most potent boswellic acid (20% and 30% respectively.)
Studies that use high concentration AKBA tend to use the 100 to 250 mg range of these AKBA enhanced forms of Boswellia serrata, but are designed to be once daily supplements taken at breakfast.
Fortify contains 25 mg of AKBA, which correlates to 120 mg Aflapin or 83 mg 5-Loxin. One serving puts you on the lower end of the active range and two servings, if needed, solidly in the middle of the active range.
What Type of Results Can I Expect with Boswellia serrata?
On the assumption you are taking Boswellia serrata for joint health, you should expect a reduction in pain within a week.
The reduction of pain, and perhaps slight improvements of joint mobility and functionality, that occur within one week won’t be the maximal potency. It takes up to a month or two for the benefits of Boswellia serrata (or any joint health supplement, really) to reach maximal potency.
While traditional usage of Boswellia serrata states that it is a calming and relaxing plant, these side-effects have yet to be reported in human trials.
The Bottom Line on Boswellia serrata
Ultimately, Boswellia serrata is a good joint health supplement that due to it working by a unique pathway (LOX), holds a niche in reducing inflammation.
It’s a good molecule deserving of much more research, in part because it’s anti-inflammatory properties could be wide-reaching but also due to having this nice cancer-fighting side-effect.
Plus the fact that it’s an anti-inflammatory and anti-metastatic compound, preventing things from growing and moving but not outright murdering them reminds me of the approach the immune boosterpelargonium sidoides takes to bacteria—preventing them from growing and latching onto cells without outright killing them.
As a general rule of thumb, those tend to be safer and less abusable—great for when you can’t have a doctor oversee your vitals during usage.
Until those studies come, rejoice in the fact that your favorite joint health supplement may be reducing your risk of the worlds deadliest cancer. Praise the pancreas!
All of this is why we included 25 mg of AKBA from Boswellia serrata in Fortify, along with clinically effective dosages of …
If you want to know what green tea extract is, why people supplement with it, and how it can benefit you, then you want to read this article.
Green tea extract is simply green tea leaves prepared as a supplement, and it’s high in a class of antioxidants called polyphenols.
Green tea extract can accelerate fat loss and improve joint, gut, skin, and heart health, and reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
To get the benefits of green tea extract, you want to take 400 to 500 mg per day or drink 5 to 10 cups of green tea per day.
The story of green tea extract starts in ancient China.
Thousands of years ago, somewhere in the southwest region of China, someone decided to eat the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.
The flavor delighted him, so he began to tell others about his discovery.
It wasn’t long until someone else realized they could use the leaves to brew a delicious drink, and legend has it that this began in earnest 2737 BC, during the reign of Emperor Shennong.
Thus, green tea was born.
This drink swept through the nation like chain lightning, and caught the attention of Chinese herbalists, who later discovered that it could also benefit our health in many ways.
It’s now one of the most popular beverages in the world, but does it live up to the hype?
What’s so special about this plant, exactly, and what can it really do for your? And especially its most common supplemental form, green tea extract?
Can green tea extract really help you lose fat faster, reduce inflammation, and improve your joint, heart, and skin health?
Or is it just another overhyped, underperforming herbal cure all?
Well, the short answer is that yes, green tea extract does offer several unique health and body composition benefits, but it’s often overblown by unscrupulous marketers and alternative health gurus.
And by the end of this article, you’ll know the whole story, because we’re going to cover…
What green tea extract is
Why people take it
How it can (and can’t) benefit your body
Potential side effects
Clinically effective dosages
And more …
Let’s get started.
What Is Green Tea Extract?
Green tea extract is simply green tea leaves prepared as a supplement.
Practically speaking, there’s no difference between ingesting green tea extract and drinking green tea.
The reason for this is many of the health benefits associated with green tea come from chemicals found in the plant called polyphenols. These are molecules that plants produce to protect themselves against radiation and various disease-causing microorganisms.
There are many types of polyphenols, and the green tea plant is particularly rich in one called a catechin. There are several types of catechins, as well, and green tea contains a large amount of the most potent of the bunch, epigallocatechin-3 gallate (EGCG).
Most green tea extract supplements contain a small amount of caffeine as well, which is thought to contribute to its health properties.
There are decaffeinated green tea supplements, but less is known about them scientifically because the majority of research has been conducted on caffeinated green tea extracts.
Research shows that green tea extract can actually deliver on (some of) these hopes.
It can do quite a bit more for your body too, actually …
What Are the Benefits of Green Tea Extract?
Green tea extract has been studied for several decades now, and we’ve learned quite a lot about how it affects the body.
Let’s review the highlights one by one.
Green Tea Extract and Fat Loss
The main reason people supplement with green tea extract is to increase fat loss.
And HOORAY because it does indeed do just that.
How much it ultimately helps, however, is unclear.
For instance, when a team of researchers from Dalhousie University looked through all of the studies on green tea extract and body composition available that lasted at least 12 weeks, they found that it caused anywhere from 0.5 to 8 pounds of weight loss over the course of the trials.
In other words, some people experienced very little additional fat loss with green tea supplementation, and others experienced quite a bit.
Why the wide range of results?
The researchers aren’t exactly sure, but they think that some people simply respond better to it than others.
To understand why this is the case, you first need to understand how green tea extract stimulates fat burning in the body.
The physiology is a bit complex, but here’s the short story:
To release fatty acids from fat cells so they can be burned for energy, your body produces chemicals called catecholamines.
To bring catecholamine levels back down, your body produces an enzyme called catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT). The higher COMT levels are, the lower catecholamine levels will be, and the less fat and calories you’ll burn.
Green tea extract blunts the effects of COMT, which allows catecholamine levels to remain higher, helping you burn more fat and calories.
The catch, however, is that green tea extract affects COMT differently in different people. In some people, the effects are marked and so is the increase in fat burning, whereas in others, the effects and benefits are negligible.
The two main factors that determine how effective green tea extract is for fat burning are:
1. Your genetics.
For example, people of Asian descent generally respond better to green tea extract than us round-eyes, and thus lose more fat when supplementing with it.
2. Your caffeine intake.
Habitually consuming more than 300 mg of caffeine per day is enough to start building a tolerance, and significantly decrease its effectiveness. As your body becomes more tolerant to it, it also becomes less responsive to the fat-burning effects of green tea extract.
So, where does that leave us?
On the one hand, if you don’t have the right genetics and regularly consume a lot of caffeine, then green tea extract may not help you lose fat faster.
On the other hand, if you have the right genetics and regularly consume a low to moderate amount of caffeine, then green tea extract could help you lose fat significantly faster.
Most people will fall somewhere in the middle here–not hyper- or hyporesponsive, which means you should expect green tea extract to help you lose at least a few more pounds of fat during your cut than you would without it.
And if you want to make it as effective as possible, then make sure to limit your caffeine intake to less than 300 mg per day.
You’ll also want to consume the proper dosage of green tea extract for fat burning, which is 300 mg per day or at least three servings of green tea per day.
Losing weight is great and all, but the ultimate goal isn’t just to lose fat—it’s to lose it and keep it off.
Proper diet and regular exercise are the keystones here, of course, but research shows that green tea extract can help too (and for the same reasons it can help you burn fat faster).
Proof of this idea comes from a study published by a team of researchers at Maastricht University.
The researchers wanted to see how supplementing with green tea extract affected weight loss and weight loss maintenance.
To do this, they reviewed 11 randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of research) that lasted at least 12 weeks, and after parsing through the data, they found that people who took green tea extract after losing weight were more successful in keeping it off than people who didn’t.
In other words, the green tea extract helped them maintain their new, lower, post-diet weights.
But wait, you might be thinking, shouldn’t you stop taking fat loss supplements after your diet is over?
Yes, you should eventually stop taking them, but I think it’s sensible to continue while you’re reverse dieting. Check out the article below to learn how this is done.
Green Tea Extract and Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
Oxidative stress refers to cellular damage caused by free radicals in the body.
Some oxidative stress is necessary and even beneficial, because the damage caused by free radicals encourages the body to adapt to better handle such situations in the future (this is one of the ways exercise makes us healthier).
Under healthy conditions, your cells get just enough oxidative stress to thrive, but not so much that they suffer permanent damage.
The researchers measured power production during the tests, and took blood samples to measure oxidative stress levels.
They found that the people who had been taking the green tea extract supplements showed significantly lower levels of oxidation after their workouts than the people who took the placebos.
The green tea extract didn’t improve performance in this study, but it did seem to improve markers of muscle recovery. If the athletes used that extra recovery capacity to train harder, it’s possible they would also see a gradual improvement in performance over time.
Many people claim that drinking green tea helps reduce their joint pain, and now science shows they may be right.
For instance, studies on small groups of human cells (in vitro research) have found that green tea extract can reduce inflammation, and one study on rats also showed that green tea extract reduced symptoms of arthritis.
What about us humans, though?
Well, the only study we have on this so far was conducted by scientists at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences.
They found that people who took green tea extract in addition to diclofenac (a common NSAID used for joint pain), experienced less pain and greater mobility than people who only took the diclofenac.
Although this isn’t perfect evidence by any means, it does indicate that green tea extract may indeed help reduce joint pain and improve joint function.
That’s why I included a clinically effective dosage in my joint health supplement Fortify, which you’ll learn more about in a moment.
Well, no studies have shown it works directly, but it might work indirectly by positively influencing your gut health.
For instance, one study found that drinking just two cups of green tea per day can reduce the production of inflammatory compounds called lipopolysaccharides, which are normally associated with infections. Green tea also increased the production of short chain fatty acids (which support gut health).
This is likely thanks to both the EGCG and other compounds in green tea breaking down into other compounds that can suppress what we generally call “bad” bacteria.
By keeping these bad bacteria at bay, the good bacteria is able to flourish, which decreases the risk of a number of illnesses like heart disease, obesity, and many kinds of infectious disease.
Green tea is also unique among antioxidants, because it can reduce markers of inflammation while simultaneously supporting the activity of immune cells. (One of the other few supplements that can do this is spirulina).
Normally, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory supplements reduce the activity of immune cells, which could theoretically reduce your ability to fight off infections. Green tea extract, on the other hand, gives you the best of both worlds.
There’s strong evidence that green tea extract may reduce your risk of heart disease.
To understand why and how, you first need to understand the main factors that contribute to heart disease.
At the top of this list is your blood level of cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance present in all cells of the body that’s used to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest your food.
It’s delivered to cells by molecules known as lipoproteins, which are made out of fat and proteins (hence the name, now you know Latin!). There are several different kinds of lipoproteins, but the main ones involved in this process are called low-density lipoprotein and high-density lipoprotein.
Low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, is often called “bad” cholesterol because high levels are associated with cardiovascular disease and most “heart healthy” advice suggests limiting foods that increase LDL.
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, and high levels are generally considered a sign of good heart health.
The reality is a little more complex—neither kind of cholesterol is completely bad or good—but you generally want LDL cholesterol levels to be lower rather than higher, and you want your HDL levels to be higher rather than lower.
Studies show that green tea extract reduces LDL cholesterol and increases HDL cholesterol levels, but it looks like this effect only occurs in people who already have high LDL and low HDL cholesterol. If you’re already healthy, you may not see much or any benefit.
Your blood glucose, or blood “sugar” level, refers to the amount of glucose floating around in your blood.
When blood sugar levels rise too high, your risk of developing diabetes increases. When they fall too low, you can suffer symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and fainting.
Your blood sugar levels are largely held in check by a hormone called insulin. Insulin is created and released into the blood by the pancreas, and its main job is shuttling glucose and other nutrients into cells so it isn’t cluttering up your bloodstream.
Your body takes care of all of this easily and automatically most of the time. Problems occur, though, when your BMI rises to unhealthy levels or you don’t get enough sleep or exercise.
And in these cases, green tea extract may be able to help keep blood glucose and insulin levels under control.
The most convincing piece of evidence of this comes from a study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.
They split 108 middle-aged women into three groups:
Meat and building muscle go together like beer and fishing—the former just makes the latter so much more tolerable, enjoyable, and effective.
So what happens if I were to tell you meat is giving you cancer?
And that wasn’t a joke?
Extreme hyperbole, yes, but technically speaking meat does contain various carcinogens in it. In addition, the process of cooking meat can create other byproducts that also increase the risk of cancer.
That’s more or less unavoidable, too, because it happens any time meat is heated (whether it’s on a barbeque or in the oven).
If we’re looking for long-term health then these byproducts may not be the best for us. Specifically, our poopers. Excessive meat consumption, poor cooking techniques, and inadequate veggies is most definitely a risk factor for colon cancer.
Don’t despair, though.
There are ways to prepare your meat so that production of these molecules is quite limited.
Proper cooking of meat, careful selection of what meats you do eat, and a focus on eating plenty of plants can all work together to ensure that the “potential” for meat to contribute to cancer doesn’t turn into a “reality.”
Before we get into how to cook your meat, let’s first look at what toxins are found in meat.
What are Meat Toxins?
“Meat toxins” is a term used to refer to various compounds, found in meat, that at times have been associated with toxic or cancer-promoting (carcinogenic) effects.
Whether they naturally occur in meat, were added into the meat at some point in manufacturing, or are created during the cooking and preparation stages of meat, they will all eventually find their way into our mouths and bodies.
I’ll be honest here—meat does cause cancer.
Everything causes cancer, but meat seems to do so to a degree where I can’t easily brush it off as inert. More technically, since that was a statement pedants’ mouths are watering over, I am convinced by the epidemiological evidence that there is indeed a correlation between meat and colorectal cancer.
You’ll find that while topics of breast cancer, liver cancer, and such are up in the air when it comes to meat, colorectal cancers have pretty damn solid evidence. Putting our heads in the ground like a politically radical ostrich exposed to emu propaganda won’t do anybody good.
Of course it’s not a big enough concern for me to get my panties in a bunch and go pescatarian (cause fish is seemingly innocuous) since, sometimes, the association just isn’t there. It’s a risk that’s heavily influenced by lifestyle factors and, in other words, can be controlled.
It is, in my opinion, a big enough concern for me to think of harm mitigation or at least thinking of how to control it. Why accept the increased risk when you can simply not?
We could just not eat meat but there are two problems with this—first is that if you get into the mindset of avoiding all toxins you’re going to end up starving to death hiding in a bubble, and second is that it’s boring (at least in my opinion).
Meat’s great, let’s just make it not harm us as much (if at all).
There are four groups of molecules that I’ll be covering on this topic. Understand, however, that they are groups of molecules rather than individual molecules—would be too tedious to break down each and every one of them.
Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the smoke-related carcinogens
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs), the dry heat carcinogens
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs), the inevitable oxidants
Nitrosamines (NAs), the preservative carcinogens
And at the end of the article, you’ll know how to cook meat in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Hopefully you’ll opt for the former.
Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs henceforth) are a large group of molecules associated with smoke.
As a general rule of thumb, when there’s smoke there’s fire and they bring about PAHs. This class of molecules is involved in everything from car exhaust, to cigarette smoking, to pretty much any major urbanization process due to fumes being produced.
When it comes to cooking, however, we’re mostly concerned with the process of “smoking” a meat. Either done properly, which results in a nice Montreal smoked meat, or improperly like when you keep the hood down on your barbeque and turn your steaks into charcoal.
Truth be told, you don’t need to worry about PAHs that much unless your barbeque sessions look like you’re trying to commune with Satan, causing your neighbours to bring a sacrificial lamb “just to be sure.”
Among the “toxins” listed in this article PAHs are the most easily avoidable for two reasons—you could simply cook your meat in a manner in which smoke is not formed in large amounts, and the fact that PAHs require “bioactivation” before becoming a concern.
What Is Bioactivation?
Bioactivation refers to a set of enzymes in our bodies, mostly the liver and intestines, collectively referred to as P450.
Divided between phase I and phase II, P450 is a group of enzymes tasked with identifying “foreign” or “alien” molecular structures, things that should not normally exist in the body, and rendering them inert before packaging them up for elimination.
This multipurpose workhorse of an enzyme system saves our bodies from a lot of dangers but it isn’t perfect. Sometimes it prevents otherwise beneficial compounds from getting absorbed (which occurs with curcumin) and at other times it accidentally activates an otherwise inert compound.
PAHs, inherently, are stable molecules. If they get into our bodies and nothing happens to them, they simply leave the body without doing much. Unfortunately, when our P450 system attempts to “neutralize” the threat they instead cause it to become a threat.
It’s notable enough that the differing levels of these enzymes from one person to the next somewhat predicts their cancer risk. For PAHs the specific P450 enzyme in question seems to be CYP1A1/CYP1A2—you might know this guy better by the name “aromatase” that comes up in discussions on testosterone and estrogen every now and then.
Both of these enzymes follow a similar motif—the faster the enzyme works the more at risk you are. One study in particular, which looked at smokers (smoking makes CYP1A2 work faster) consuming well-done red meat noted an 8.8-fold increase in colorectal cancer risk.
So if you’re going to be exposed to PAHs then it’s best to calm these enzymes down a bit.
What Can I Do About PAHs?
On the whole, PAHs are easily avoided.
If you don’t smoke, then your PHA intake should be fairly small, which is good because there aren’t that many supplements you can take to deal with them once they’re inside you.
There are many supplements and foods out there with “anti-cancer” properties but a common unifying thread is that they’re mild and preventative (rather than rehabilitative). Sure, in theory, we can hinder the activity of aromatase to mitigate bioactivation but there’s just one kinda major issue.
If there was a potent over-the-counter aromatase inhibitor it would be present in every single testosterone booster in existence.
Aromatase inhibiting options that we have, like chrysin, tend to be weak and poorly absorbed. They can still play a role, since P450 exists in the gut as well (and you don’t need absorption for that region) but there are no studies using supplemental aromatase inhibitors for this purpose right now.
The best advice I can give is to have an otherwise healthy diet and limit smoked meats.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs henceforth) are a byproduct formed by the combination of amino acids and sugars under high heat.
They are somewhat of an inevitability when cooking meat, given how it’s impossible to remove the amino acids and other amino acid structures (like creatine) from meat, and sugars are omnipresent in all meat sources (even if not listed on the label.)
However, unlike PAHs where they can be pretty easily avoided HCAs are:
Omnipresent in all cooking techniques
Highly dependent on how you cook the meat product
Quite easily controlled, being either a problem or a non-issue
If you are to take anything away from this article it would be this section. HCAs seem to be the most modifiable and most easily controlled meat “toxin.”
What Can I Do About HCAs?
The first thing would be to cook your meat the right length of time.
When it comes to cooking meat you begin an inevitable process by which the heat will cause HCAs to form.
HCAs tend to be optimally formed in a moderate range of 100 to 250°C, which is fairly unavoidable when cooking meat, but this is significantly augmented by dryness.
If HCA formation is a combination of heat and time, then dryness is a 1.2x modifier.
Manystudies compare pan-fried versus broiled for this reason. Broiling a piece of meat tends to keep the meat’s moisture inside the meat rather than having it leak out into the pan, which preserves the moisture and makes it a better option if no external fluids are added.
Furthermore, we can take another preventative measure here by marinating meat.
Marinades have been shown to play a major preventative role as long as they contain oils andantioxidants—maybe even red wine. By adding moisture, and with antioxidants hindering HCA formation, spice and oil marinades can reduce HCA formation during cooking.
The only exception is marinades with a lot of sugars (and oddly, soy sauce?), which increase HCA formation.
Finally, just as a heads up—HCAs are formed on the outside of the meat products. That means that when a meat leaves residue in the pan (the “fond”), and you want to deglaze it to make a sauce, there could be an appreciable HCA content in there—about as much as the meat itself if not higher.
To reduce HCA formation to acceptable levels, keep your meat moist and perhaps opt for a marinade containing antioxidant spices (i.e. almost all of them) and an oil rub.
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs henceforth) are compounds formed during the browning process of meats when amino acids and/or lipids become exposed to sugars.
AGEs aren’t really a “meat toxin” specifically.
They’re formed endogenously within our own bodies regardless of our desires, can form from many food products, and are generally quite omnipresent. If amino acids, lipids, and sugar coexists then AGEs can form and, well, that’s every damn living cell in existence.
So it isn’t a question of perfect avoidance—that’s impossible—it’s a question of trying to limit unnecessary intake of AGEs.
And high fat foods that come packaged with a large amount of amino acids, like meat, are a major source of AGEs. Somewhat inherently as well, with red meats like beef having more than fish products although some AGEs do appear to be made when heat is applied as well.
However, unlike the HCAs which can increase to large degrees during cooking, the AGEs do not see too marked a rise during the cooking process compared to default levels.
So it seems like the cooking process is, honestly, not too major a concern here.
What Can I Do About AGEs?
When it comes to AGEs, it seems that choosing to eat meat is a more pivotal factor than how you cook your meat.
The “safest” meat would be sushi, since it’s fish (low in AGEs compared to land meat) that isn’t exposed to heat.
However, given how AGEs are created in our bodies and we’re concerned with their proposed effects on aging and oxidation it may be best to take more “rehabilitative” measures against them— ie. supplementation with antioxidants and such.
Ultimately, however, it’s the least concerning “toxin” in this list when it comes to cooking meat.
When it comes to enjoying meat, AGEs aren’t something worth worrying about. However, AGEs in general pop up every now and then on discussions for health so supplements that reduce their levels can help— even if you’re vegan.
Nitrosamines (NAs henceforth) are known for being the “pink meat” preservative.
NAs are molecules that combine nitrate, a small molecule that serves vital health roles as a reservoir for the blood flow regulating nitric oxide, and amino acids. When the two bind together a nitrosamine forms.
There are many nitrosamines out there, and they’re used in various industries beyond food. When it comes to food they have the role of a preservative and, in particular, whenever you hear about something pertaining to “processed” meat or “pink” meat (preserved pork) it’s almost always a nitrosamine issue.
Once again, nitrosamines are technically unavoidable. Nitrates are in every vegetable out there, amino acids are in every food out there, nitrosamines can be formed in the intestines—you get the picture.
But like AGEs, just because something is technically unavoidable doesn’t mean we can’t mitigate intake somewhat. If we do have to eat NAs anyways then we can also attempt to mitigate their harm.
So, how do we go about doing that?
What Can I Do About NAs?
The best choice here is to not shove excess NAs into your face. Opt for fresher meat products rather than cheap bulk pork chops or dried deli meats.
I specify pork chops and deli meats since I at least acknowledge them as meat products. The process that turned the once honorable beef jerky into the debauchery that is Slim Jims are more of a concern for health, however.
Of course that’s a totally bourgeoise thing to say, just eat premium beef everyday like an elite as if money isn’t a concern, but if you can’t opt for discount chicken at the minimum then there may be some hope.
Nitrosamines, and their sources, are routinely correlated with colorectal cancer (and every now and then have weak correlations with other forms of cancer) and these studies tend to find that diets high in vegetable intake exert protective effects. Nitrosamines increase risk, veggies decrease risk—perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
So at the very least, don’t let that pork chop fester alone in your colon without some fiber and antioxidants co-mingling with it.
The increased risk of colorectal cancer seen with pink meats and nitrosamines occurs alongside a decreased risk seen with higher vegetable intake. If you can’t avoid pink meats, but want to mitigate cancer risk, then ensure a high vegetable intake.
Now that we’ve outlined the four sections we can deduce what’s effectively the worst type of meat to consume.
It would probably be some cheap pork or beef product. Pork products tend to be much higher in the nitrosamines but beef tends to have higher AGE content. Regardless, cheap is key here since it’s chock full of preservatives.
This excludes just eating $5 worth of Costco “Smoked Meat-like Big Boy sticks” that look like beef jerky yet taste like canola oil and gluttony.
Now take that bad boy straight from frozen and throw it on the barbeque. Straight from frozen doesn’t play a major role in meat toxins but it’s positively barbaric and works well.
Put the hood down and keep it down until the sucker is cooked well done. I don’t want no “medium rare steaks,” I want a hunk of bovine or swine burned so bad that the crying Native American from those 70s littering PSAs comes back with a vengeance.
Disgrace the ancestors, burn the buffalo and smoke its remains.
Voraciously inhale it with a bun, no vegetables. Also, have a beer and a ciggie alongside the meat just to throw more problems onto your plate. Go back for seconds, and thirds, cancer cells can get lonely without friends after all.
A common tactic here is to have fries with your burger. This is a mistake. Fries are made from potatoes and potatoes are a vegetable. Furthermore, they provide some bulk to the intestines and mildly improve digestibility. This is a worst case scenario, siphon that meat.
The closest parallel situation I can think of is if somebody is hosting a barbeque for July 4th and buys hamburgers wholesale. They are then too preoccupied drinking with their friends to not infuse their burgers with smoke to the point where Beijing traffic would blush.
A few times a year is fine but don’t do that regularly. Furthermore, the next time somebody brings a platter of raw vegetables with dip to your barbeque, you thank them for their foresight in harm-reduction.
What Is the Best Way to Prepare Meat?
The best way to prepare meat is in stark contrast to the above.
I’m not going to be a prude and say to not eat red meats but, let’s be honest, red meat is in and out of the media frequently as to whether or not it harms you. Chicken and fish almost never are and, when they are, the articles are usually thoroughly mocked.
Opt for chicken and fish if you can, but we’ll proceed with the notion that you’re gonna cook pork and beef anyways.
You want meat, ideally, buy it from the butcher. Stuff that’s fresh and not full of preservatives. If you’re going to buy cheap then I would advise buying chicken cheap and maybe beef. Avoid overly processed “pink” meats..