11 Classic Barbecue Staples that Were Used as Medicines

istock collage
istock collage / istock collage

Need a quick salve, antiseptic or diuretic? Or perhaps something more intense, like a natural remedy for erectile dysfunction or impure blood? You might not need to look any farther than the picnic table at your backyard barbecue. Here are 11 time-tested ingredients for a healthier you that are commonly found at any cookout (though you might be better off with a bandage and an Advil).


via iStock

For the past several thousand years, the parts of the cow that didn’t go into your burger—its organs, various secretions and excretions, the soft bits of its head, and its genitalia—were used more often in traditional medicine around the world than the parts that did make it into that grade-A beef. However, salted and raw beef has been used as a cold, dense compress for treating pain and swelling for about 7000 years—since cattle were domesticated—just as brawlers in movies slap a steak on their black eyes today.


via iStock

Just about everywhere where wild cattle and their ancestors are native, cultures have employed milk and other dairy products in their traditional treatments. Cow’s milk butter was used for many centuries for treating burns (not recommended), rashes, and other skin ailments in Europe (yaks and goats provided the same service, too), while both milk and butter have been the foundation of recipes for treating everything from nausea and hangovers to blindness, madness, and sorrow. Milk even lends a base to this multi-benefit salve treatment from the medieval Physicians of Myddfai:

A Plaster to Reduce the Swelling, and to Extract Worms from Scrofulous Ulcerations. Take the milk of a one coloured cow, and oatmeal, boil well to the consistency of a child's pap, spreading it thick on a cloth, adding honey on the surface, this will extract the worms and reduce the swelling, disenvenom the flesh, remove the hardness, and heal the sore. This is proven.


via iStock

Like horseradish on your burger? Interesting. In any case, the condiment is made from vinegar and the root of the Armoracia rusticana or horseradish plant, which—like fellow Brassicaceae-family members broccoli, cabbage, wasabi and mustardhas been widely used in traditional medicine for treating lung and urinary tract infections. These uses may stem from the fact that, in addition to a large load of vitamin C, horseradish and its kin contain volatile oils, which have antibacterial properties. The selenium and isothiocyanates in mustard are now believed to help fight cancer, too. 

Ketchup, meanwhile, contains a very special fruit that may appear in several guises at your cookout, the tomato. Mostly reviled in Europe and the U.S. until the mid-1800s, it was briefly considered (like many newly discovered foods have been) to be a miracle drug right around the time it started appearing in the previously tomato-free sauce known as ketchup. Today, the fruit, leaves, and vine are used to make various medicines, while the chemical lycopene, found in tomatoes (and most easily digested in processed ones), is thought to help prevent cancer and treat several other diseases. 


via iStock

A byproduct of the alcoholic fermentation of anything from apples and wine to the Japanese grain “Job’s tears,” vinegar has been used around the world over the millennia for a wide array of medical applications. Ketchup, horseradish, salad dressing, and numerous other condiments benefit from the preservative properties of its acetic acid—a feature that’s made vinegar a popular cleaning product and disinfectant that can even kill tuberculosis mycobacteria.

While modern medicinal users should talk to their doctors before starting a vinegar regimen (due to some possibly serious side-effects), the substance has also been claimed to help decrease hunger and cholesterol, relieve certain sting symptoms, and help regulate blood sugar levels.


via iStock

Whether you’re all about baked beans or enjoy digging into some soy-based veggie meat, the medical history of the oft-ignored legume is an honorable one. In Eastern and Western traditional medicine, tea made from various bean pods has been used to treat kidney and bladder problems, sciatica, rheumatism, and a long list of tummy issues.

Soybeans specifically have been a pivotal ingredient in many traditional treatments. From around the second century BCE, black soybeans were regarded by Chinese healers as supportive of yin, the negative principle, while green soybeans supported yang, the positive principle. When soaked in wine, black soybeans were also thought to help aid recovery from colds, impure blood, and difficult childbirth.

6. BEER 

via iStock

The hops in your grill-side beer have long been used for its antiseptic, anti-spasmodic, and antibiotic properties, while the lemon and lime you might use to garnish beer have been used in various Indian treatments and as antiseptics for a couple thousand years.

However, the true medical celebrity ingredient in your beer is the alcohol. It’s been used all around the world to treat everything from insomnia and malaise to pain and erectile dysfunction (or, when mixed with opium to create laudanum, to treat everything, period) virtually since its discovery.


via iStock

Just about every fruit known to humankind has been tested for possible medicinal value, and the ones that typically end up on your reinforced paper plate are no exception.

For example, Native Americans and Europeans both developed medicinal uses for the wild strawberry varieties on their respective continents. The leaves of wild strawberry plants can serve as mild astringents (making them a good ingredient to throw in a throat gargle), while both the leaves and fruit contain a natural diuretic and possibly a mild laxative—probably a good thing to ingest after eating and drinking your weight in burgers and beer.

Mangoes, on the other hand, have long been used in tropical climates as anti-asthmatic, antiseptic, antiviral, cardiotonic, emetic, expectorant, hypotensive, and laxative treatments. Be careful around the mango tree, though—the leaves, wood, and sap can cause significant respiratory and skin reactions.


via iStock

Today, the fiber and nutrients in your roasted ear of corn are considered useful supplements in preventing and treating a wide range of medical conditions, from constipation to any number of mineral deficiencies. After first cultivating corn crops, various Native Americans used parts of the plant in an array of treatments—many of which have influenced current Western medical practices—for use as a diuretic, an analgesic, and an antiseptic, among other things. Corn was also used (though with less success) to treat gout, flu, inflammation, and dysentery.


via iStock

If a friendly game of football goes sour at your next cookout, you’ll be glad to have some bacon on hand for patching up the players. In European folk medicine, bacon and pork were used as compresses for treating bruises, while bacon and pork fat served as the base of a huge number of salves, to treat ringworm, and—when smeared on a muslin cloth for wrapping around a person’s neck—to ease a sore throat. To remove warts, the bacon from your own cottage’s larder wouldn’t do—it had to be stolen bacon for the treatment to work.

10. SODA 

viai Stock

Soft drink makers tend to keep their recipes well under wraps, but what we do know that the contemporary and classic recipes for Coca-Cola, for one, reveal plenty about its place on medical history’s table. There are multiple theories about what was in the original Coke formula, but some sources speculate that its early “natural flavors” included such herbs and spices as coriander (used to preserve meat in the Bronze age and as an aphrodisiac in the Renaissance) and cinnamon, which isn’t considered by modern Western healers to have many medical applications but was traditionally used to treat “flatulent and spasmodic affections of the alimentary canal.” 

There was also, of course, the drink’s coca leaf or cocaine content, which the company itself heralded as offering various medical benefits until the government cracked down on the ingredient. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cocaine was widely and enthusiastically prescribed for everything from head colds and cancer to—perhaps more reasonably—fatigue and pain.


via iStock

Last but not least is the fuel that gets your summer barbecue cooking: Charcoal itself. Like other products with histories dating back thousands of year, charcoal has played a variety of roles in traditional medicine, including as a (possibly ironic) treatment for burns, for purifying water, and for absorbing unwanted odors and liquids from wounds and the intestinal tract.

The latter two uses are still around today, and Pliny the Elder, one of Western medicine’s earliest documentarians, praised the varied miracle of charcoal in his Natural History c. 50 CE: “It is only when ignited and quenched that charcoal itself acquires its characteristic powers, and only when it seems to have perished that it becomes endowed with greater virtue.”