Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs), a group of chemicals formed during high-temperature cooking of meat and fish, are potent mutagens and are suspected to play a role in colorectal cancer. A recent study suggested that marinating meat may offer a way to reduce HAA formation. Hawaii's diverse ethnic populations, which are at various risks of colorectal cancer, often use traditional marinades when cooking meat. We compared the HAA content of beef steaks marinated overnight with teriyaki sauce, turmeric-garlic sauce, or commercial honey barbecue sauce with that of unmarinated steaks. The levels of 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo [4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP) and 2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline (MeIQx) were determined by liquid-liquid extraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Beef steaks marinated with teriyaki sauce had 45% and 67% lower PhIP level at 10 minutes (p = 0.002) and 15 minutes (p = 0.001) of cooking time as well as 44% and 60% lower MeIQx levels at 10 minutes (p = 0.008) and 15 minutes (p = 0.001), respectively, than unmarinated meat. Lower levels of PhIP and MeIQx were also observed in meat marinated with turmeric-garlic sauce. In contrast, marinating with barbecue sauce caused a 2.9- and 1.9-fold increase in PhIP (p < or = 0.005) and a 4- and 2.9-fold increase in MeIQx (p < or = 0.001) at 10 and 15 minutes, respectively. Differences in the mutagenic activities of marinated and unmarinated steaks, as measured by the Ames assay, paralleled the differences in PhIP and MeIQx levels. Future studies should test the effects of specific ingredients, including the water content of marinades, and the effect of reapplying barbecue sauce during cooking (to reduce charring) on HAA formation.