Fire Up the Grill but Turn Down the Heat!

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Dr. Z

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Labor Day honors the efforts of all those workers who help to build America—both economically and socially. As with other holidays, however, the intention of Labor Day has been lost. For many, it’s the unofficial end of summer; for students, it means “back to school.” For nearly everyone, Labor Day has become a day to relax, eat and drink with family and friends, often at a barbecue involving the grilling of burgers, steaks, hot dogs, sausages and other forms of foods that can be thrown on the grill.

There's something about the smell of grilled steaks and burgers wafting through the air as you drive through the neighborhood. Before we get into the discussion of grilling, here are some facts on the topic of red meat. There’s plenty of confusion regarding the health benefits or hazards of eating a food source we’ve been eating for millions of years: red meat. Many studies, especially in the mainstream media, don’t make the distinction between grass-fed meat, conventional grain-fed meat, and processed meat. Usually, they are all lumped into the “red meat” category. Is grain-fed beef the same as grass-fed beef? You might as well ask is mountain spring water the same as city sewer water? 

All red meat is not the same. How can grain-fed, feedlot, stressed animals who are abused and living in unsanitary conditions have the same nutrient composition that free-range, grass-fed, stress-free animals have? Research is now drawing distinctions among the types of red meat, as well as bringing to light the health benefits of free-range, grass-fed beef. Regarding the nutritional profiles of the two different meats, grass-fed is superior in all components, including fatty acids, saturated fats, antioxidants, vitamins and, last but not least, flavor. Speaking of flavor, what better way to bring out the taste of grass-fed beef than slowly grilling it on low to medium heat. 

Grilling is a traditional way to cook meat so it is safe for consumption. While nothing beats a grass-fed burger grilled over low heat, there are potential health risks associated with meat cooked at high temperatures. While the high heat kills bacteria and other food-borne pathogens, it—high heat—causes the protein in meat to produce compounds called heterocyclic amines. These compounds can be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) when the meat is burned, blackened, and charred. To combat the production of these harmful compounds, grill meats on low heat with frequent flipping to avoid burning and charring. I know, I know, everyone loves the crunchy black stuff on barbecued ribs and chicken. However, those meats also produce the nasty amines.   

Mother Nature has created anthocyanins, the purple and red compounds found in fruits and vegetables that neutralize heterocyclic amines. In fact, according to the Journal of Toxicological Sciences, anthocyanins in purple sweet potato and red cabbage neutralized the heterocyclic amines and their damaging effects in the gut. The good news is there are many ways to add purple fruits and vegetables to grilled meats in order to counteract the production of heterocyclic amines.

This recipe is found on page 279 of my book Rebuild. The picture is a grass-fed burger cooked on low heat with this red cabbage relish spread over the top. It is unbelievably delicious!

Here’s the recipe:


Serves 4–6

Calories per serving: 148 for 4; 98 for 6


1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

Sea salt and pepper to taste

1 medium red cabbage, halved and thinly sliced

Juice and zest of 1 large orange

1 tablespoon fresh or dried tarragon


In a large skillet over medium heat, add grapeseed oil, onions, salt, and pepper; cook for a few minutes. Add cabbage; salt to taste, and sauté for 10 minutes, stirring often.

Once the cabbage has cooked down a bit, add the orange juice and tarragon. Stir well, lower heat, and cook for 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed.

In the last minute of cooking, add orange zest and stir well. This is a good accompaniment for grilled meat. The antioxidant properties in the cabbage will help to offset the effects of char from the grill. 

Enjoy, and have an enjoyable and healthful Labor Day.


Hagiwara A, Yoshino H, Ichihara T, et al., Prevention by natural food anthocyanins, purple sweet potato color and red cabbage color, of 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine-associated colorectal carcinogenesis in rats initiated with 1,2-dimethylhydrazine, The Journal of Toxicological Sciences, Vol.27, No.1,57-68, 2002


Categories: Health, Recipes
About The Author
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Dr. Robert Zembroski is a Physician, Board-Certified Chiropractic Neurologist, Clinical Nutritionist, specialist in Functional Medicine, author and public speaker. Twenty-one years in private practice helped Dr. Zembroski to become an expert in health topics from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, hormone-related issues, neurological dysfunction and more. Currently, Dr. Zembroski is the director of The Darien Center for Functional Medicine, in Darien, Connecticut. For more from Dr. Zembroski visit

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