Published on May 30, 2017

Healthy marinades add flavor to grilled foods

By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

Summer brings out the grills and healthy menu options as we grill lean meats, chicken, fish and vegetables. Marinating can add robust flavors.

Grilling red meats to the point of charring can increase the heterocyclic amines that have been connected to increasing the risk of cancer. But marinating meats first may help decrease this risk, according to the American Cancer Research Institute.  

Marinades have three parts: an acidic liquid, oil and seasonings. The acid causes the tissue on the meat' surface to break down, which allows more moisture to be absorbed and results in a juicier product. Leaving meats in a marinade too long may "chemically cook" them and cause the surface to turn mushy.  Common acids include vinegars, citrus juices, yogurt, buttermilk or wine. A variety of oils can be used. Spices and herbs add a wide variety of flavor.

A general rule is that you need about 1/2 cup of marinade for each pound of meat or two pounds of vegetables. About one-third of the marinade' sodium and calories will be absorbed.

Many marinades are high in sodium, or salt. Many bottled marinades have 300 to 600 milligrams of sodium in each tablespoon. Even if only one-third is absorbed, that' 100 to 200 milligrams of sodium.

So, make your own marinades with fresh ingredients or choose those with less sodium. For example, Mrs. Dash marinades or World Harbors marinades have zero to no more than 120 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. 

Marinating time depends on the type, cut and size of the meat. Thinner cuts require less time. For example, steaks or chops need two to four hours while a whole roast needs four to six hours. Fish and vegetables require very little time, around 15-30 minutes. Meat that is still frozen will not absorb a marinade, so be sure to thaw first. If using a bottled marinade that is high in sodium, marinating for a shorter time helps avoid "mushy meat."

Here are some healthy marinades to get your summer off to a great start:

Chipotle Lime Marinade
This marinade is great with lean pork, chicken, fish or vegetables. Makes about ¾ cup.

1 chipotle chili pepper in adobo sauce plus 1 teaspoon of the adobe sauce 
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
â…› teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper.

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Pour mixture into a gallon zip-lock bag or glass container. Use 1/2 cup per pound of meat or two pounds of vegetables. 

Nutrition Facts
Servings: 12
Servings size: 1 tablespoon
Calories: 14
Total fat: 1 gram
Saturated fat: 0 grams
Sodium: 35 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 1 gram
Protein: 0 grams

Big Bold Marinade
This marinade is wonderful on all kinds of meat and fish as well as firm tofu. I adapted this recipe from It makes 1 cup.

2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground allspice
¾ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 dashes of hot sauce

Heat oil in small saucepan. Add onion and garlic; cook about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients. Add up two pounds of protein of your choice.

Nutrition Facts
Servings: 16
Serving size: 1 tablespoon
Calories: 30
Total fat: 2 grams
Saturated fat: 0 grams
Sodium: 90 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 3 grams
Protein: 0 grams

Lemon and Garlic Marinade
This is a great marinade for vegetables, fish and lean beef. Makes 1/4 cup.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon Paul Prudhomme' Magic Salt-Free Seasoning All-Purpose Blend
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Add meat or vegetables.
Nutrition facts
Servings: 4
Serving size: 1 tablespoon
Calories: 35
Total fat: 4 grams
Saturated fat: 2 grams
Sodium: 0 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 1 gram
Protein: 0 grams

SIDE BAR:  Marinade safely

Follow these guidelines from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics while marinating to reduce the risk of food-borne illness:

  • Contain it. Marinate food in a container, preferably glass or food grade plastic. Don't use metal or glazed pottery since the acid in the marinade can interact with it and may add lead. Food grade plastic re-sealable bags are convenient, but must be disposed of after use.
  • Let the refrigerator be your friend.  Make sure the container of marinating food is fully covered. Place it in the refrigerator (below 40 degrees F), not on the kitchen counter.  This will keep food out of the temperature danger zone (40 , 140 degrees) when harmful bacteria can multiple rapidly causing food-borne illness. If traveling, pack marinating meat with ice to maintain temperature.
  • Never reuse marinade. Cross-contamination can lead to food poisoning. This can occur when a marinade is used with raw meat, poultry or fish and then reused "as is" on cooked food. Used marinade needs to boiled to destroy harmful bacteria before using as a sauce, or plan ahead and set aside some fresh marinade to be used as a sauce. 

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