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Is Gently Cooked Food Better for You?

As Primal eaters, you have no doubt been the recipient of many an email populated with scary studies about the association of meat consumption with various degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Heck, a new one just came out that I’m sure I’ll be receiving dozens of times in my inbox (turns out controlling for body weight negates the links!). And though most of them can be explained by the “healthy user effect,” the failure to control for other variables, and the processed meat versus unprocessed meat dichotomy, a few do appear to suggest a link between certain diseases and eating meat that’s been cooked a certain way:

Cooking isn’t bad, of course. It makes food taste better, gives us access to a wider range of foods – like starches – that would otherwise be fairly indigestible, kills food-borne pathogens, improves the texture of foods (meat becomes more tender, fat renders, vegetables soften), and increases the calories we can extract from food [4].

But there’s a dark side to cooking. Depending on the methods and ingredients you use and the temperature you apply, cooking can create carcinogenic and toxic compounds, and oxidized fats – and these may be involved in some of the diseases studied. It may not be the meat itself, but how we treat the meat. So – what compounds should we be worrying about?

Heterocyclic Amines

When meat is directly exposed to high temperature, the amino acids, sugars, and creatine within it react to form heterocyclic amines (HCA). In animal studies, HCAs are mutagenic – they provoke harmful DNA mutations, can change gene expression, and cause cancer. Epidemiological studies link HCA intake in humans to many of these same cancers (including cancer of the prostate [5]pancreas [2], and colon [6]). Caution appears to be warranted.

Advanced Glycation Endproducts

When steak is browned, when sugar is caramelized, or when you get a nice crust going on that roast, you’re creating advanced glycation endproducts via the Maillard reaction. Most AGEs actually form endogenously, inside our bodies, but dietary AGEs appear to have some negative effects of their own. Dietary AGEs have been shown to drain a person’s antioxidant stores [7], opening them up to an inflammatory cascade that includes insulin resistance [8] and, potentially, diabetes, while low-AGE diets can increase insulin sensitivity [9] in humans.

Oxidized Lipids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids [10] in meat (or in the seed oils used to marinade the meat) can become oxidized when exposed to high heat. When eaten, these oxidized fats are incorporated into circulating lipids [11], thus increasing the risk of atherosclerosis.

The easiest way to minimize your exposure to heat-related toxins is to emphasize gentle cooking methods and de-emphasize higher heat methods.

More abrasive cooking methods include:

Minimize those.

Gentler cooking methods include:

Emphasize those, because they all limit the formation of HCAs, AGEs, and oxidized lipids. They’ll take you most of the way, but there are other variables to tweak (or at least be aware of) for greater protection:

Cooking temperature – Most studies indicate that 300 ºF, or 150 ºC, results in minimal HCA formation [14], even when pan-frying; 400 ºF is when the carcinogens really start accumulating quickly. As for AGEs, watch for browning. That’s the Maillard reaction, and it’s a good basic indicator of AGE formation [15].

Creatine content of the meat – The more creatine in the meat, the more HCA will be formed. That’s why grilled salmon has more HCA than grilled burger, and it’s why the mid-90s trend of post-workout creatine monohydrate pancakes resulted in an exponential spike in cancer deaths among weight lifters (ok, that’s not true).

Saturation of the fat – The more saturated the fat you use to cook, the more resistant it is to oxidation from heat exposure. Highly saturated coconut oil bests mostly polyunsaturated sunflower oil [16], for example. Same goes for the fat in the meat; ruminant fat is more resistant to oxidation than chicken fat.

Antioxidant content of the fat – Some fats come with antioxidants that increase their resistance to heat. Even though it contains ample amounts of polyunsaturated fat, sesame oil is quite resistant to heat because of the antioxidants it bears. Extra virgin olive oil [17] and red palm oil [18] are other examples of good fats high in antioxidants.

Antioxidant content of the meat – Pastured animals allowed to eat fresh grass, wild forage and herbs will effectively produce antioxidant-infused meat with greater oxidative stability [19] than animals raised on concentrated feed.

Protective foods consumed with the meal – Certain foods seem to mitigate or even negate the harmful effects of heat-related toxins. Interestingly, many of them appear to confirm the healthfulness of certain cultural traditions.

Pretty much any plant food you eat with your meat, especially the colorful ones, will have a favorable impact on carcinogen formation, lipid oxidation, or mutagenicity. Blueberries, beets, salad greens, carrots, tomatoes, apple slices, spices – it’s hard to go wrong. They certainly won’t hurt.

Marinades – Almost uniformly, marinating your meat will reduce the formation of toxic compounds like HCA and AGE, even if you grill it [24] or pan-fry it [25]. Use a quality antioxidant rich fat, like olive oil; an acidic medium, like citrus juice or vinegar; and some antioxidant rich flavorings, like herbs, peppers, garlic, ginger, and spices like turmeric [26] or cayenne and you’ll probably produce a marinade capable of inhibiting toxin formation. Maybe not completely, maybe a few AGEs or HCAs will slip through, but anything is better than just throwing it on the grill or in the pan naked and dry. For some ideas that will surely help make your meats healthier and more delicious, try some Primal marinades [27].

The ingredients of the marinade matter. Sugar, for example, will increase the formation of heterocyclic amines [28], especially when combined with soy sauce [29]. Does that mean any marinade that includes anything sweet is out? No. Using honey [30]citrus juices [31], and other whole food sweeteners all appear to reduce HCA formation, most likely because of the presence of other bioactive compounds (phytonutrients and other antioxidants) in the sweeteners. Even brown sugar seems to inhibit HCAs more than table sugar [32] (though not as much as honey). Soy sauce and sugar may even be acceptable components of a marinade just so long as you include something protective like ginger and garlic, as one study [33] found that teriyaki sauce (which contains soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and ginger) reduced HCA formation when used as a marinade. In that same study, Kraft honey BBQ sauce increased HCA formation, probably because it’s mostly high fructose corn syrup [34].

In other words, it’s not as simple as saying “this ingredient increases the risk” because other ingredients can counter or mitigate the effect. A good general rule when making marinades: the more herbs and spices you use, the more protective (and better-tasting) your marinade.

Okay, with all that info out of the way, how do we make sense of it? What are some ground rules we can hew to?

Use liquid whenever possible. Water, stock, coffee, wine, even a bit of citrus juice will help reduce the formation of harmful compounds. Generally, any cooking method is made more gentle with the addition of liquid.

Keep the temperature low when applying direct heat. Stir-frying, pan-frying, grilling – try to keep the temperature on medium-low to medium.

Learn to love rare to medium-rare meat and avoid medium well to well-done meat. Most epidemiological studies linking cooked meat to cancer only find positive associations with well-done meat. Besides, well-done steak is a culinary travesty and you should already avoid it on principle. Even when pan-frying or grilling, it’s usually only the well-done burgers that form lots of carcinogens [35].

Marinate, marinate, marinate. Plan ahead so that you can soak your meat in some antioxidant rich medium or another. Even ten to fifteen minutes before cooking can be effective.

If you don’t have time to marinate your meat, apply spices and herbs to the surface before cooking. Add some chopped garlic and ginger (or even garlic powder and ginger powder) to your steaks, some minced thyme and rosemary to your lamb, and cumin and turmeric to your chicken – or use them all at once! Even black pepper can help. When preparing ground meat, mix the spices and herbs directly into the meat, not just on the surface of your formed burgers.

Drink wine, eat broccoli, have espresso, and eat other mitigatory foods alongside your meat. Luckily, people on a Primal eating plan aren’t just downing charred steak and nothing else. They’re eating plenty of plants, too [36].

Regularly make complex curries, tagines, goulashes, and other stews, which incorporate all the protective elements in one tasty package: liquid, spices/herbs, low temperature, gentle cooking.

As much as I love a good braised meat, I won’t deny the deliciousness of a seared steak or crispy sweet potatoes. Here are a couple cooking tricks I’ve developed over the years that should reduce toxin formation while allowing you to enjoy crispy, browned foods.

Searing a steak or cooking a stir fry? Add a bit of lemon or orange juice mixed with spices and herbs when you turn the meat. The juice and herb mixture will provide moisture and help protect the surface of the meat in contact with the pan, you’ll still get some decent browning on one side, and once the meat’s done, you can let the juice reduce down into a sauce. (Extra tip: add half a cup of really gelatinous bone broth [37] to the liquid to make the reduction even richer.) Will this eliminate HCA formation or completely inhibit lipid oxidation? Probably not, but it’s way better than just charring the meat dry.

When making any starchy root dish that involves applying high heat to obtain a crispy exterior, start with pre-cooked tubers. So, if you’re doing fries, cook the potatoes the day before and keep them in the fridge. Peel them, slice them into the fry shape of your choice, and lightly sauté each side in a stable cooking fat like ghee [38] or coconut oil [39] (or ghee and coconut oil! [40]) over medium heat. Since you don’t have to worry about cooking the interior and it only takes a couple minutes to get a nice crust on each side, your cooking time is reduced by about 80% and the temperature needed is far lower as well. Fewer carcinogens and less lipid oxidation.

Ultimately, healthy eating is about striking a balance. You can sear your steaks and live long [41] – just don’t do so exclusively or eschew healthy plant foods alongside them. You can throw some chicken thighs on the grill – but to mitigate the risks, just make sure they’re marinated.

Let’s hear from you. How do you cook most of your foods? Are you a fan of gentle cooking? Got any good tips for minimizing harm while maximizing taste?

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