By Environmental Nutrition

A meal made with high quality, nutrient-rich lean meats is sure to stir up a healthy appetite, but add the smoke and sizzle of an outdoor grill, the pop of oil deep-frying on the stovetop, or the savory smell of browning in the broiler and it becomes outright irresistible.

But is it still healthy?

Maybe not, says the latest research, which suggests that how we prepare our food is at least as important as the foods we choose. And turning down the heat may save your meat dishes from accumulating toxins that pose health risks.

High heat toxins

Toxic compounds form when foods are cooked at high temperatures. The chemicals heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when muscle meat from beef, pork, poultry and fish is prepared using high temperature cooking methods such as pan-frying or direct-flame grilling. Laboratory experiments have shown these two substances to be mutagenic, causing changes in the DNA that may increase cancer risk. While these compounds cause cancer in animals, studies continue to investigate the risk of exposure to high levels in humans. HCAs and PAHs are listed as "reasonably expected to cause cancer in humans" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Another class of toxins known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed when animal proteins are cooked with sugars in the absence of water, such as in pan-frying or grilling. The chemical reaction gives certain foods the desirable "cooked" flavors and aromas that you've grown to love. Absorbed into the body, AGEs have been linked to a variety of ills, including inflammation, diabetes, kidney disease and Alzheimer's disease. A study published in the October/November 2009 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that daily AGE consumption in a standard Western diet is at least three times higher than the safe limit. AGEs can be reduced by cooking methods for meats that use lower heat and moisture, such as slow-cooking or stewing, as well as by avoiding processed, deep-fried or pan-fried animal proteins.

Slow-cooking for health

Slow, moist cooking offers protection against toxic compounds, as well as other tasty and practical benefits. A long, slow simmer in a crockpot or stovetop breaks down tough fibers in meats, creates a tender texture, and concentrates flavors by marinating the meat in its own juices. Even the leanest and least expensive cuts will emerge tasty. And slow cooking is easy; just place meat in a pot or slow-cooker, cover with liquid and seasonings, and simmer.

How to reduce meat toxins with slow, moist heat

Lower your exposure to potentially hazardous toxins such as HCAs, PAHs and AGEs with these tips.

-- Trim meat fat to reduce drips and the resulting PAH-containing flare-ups during cooking or grilling.

-- Opt for smaller, thinner meat cuts, which take less time to cook.

-- Flip meat frequently, which accelerates cooking and helps prevent HCAs from forming.

-- Marinate meats, which some research suggests can help reduce the formation of HCAs by well over 90 percent.

-- Avoid overcooking or charring meats.

-- Steam, boil and stew meats, to maintain water content and reduce AGEs.

-- Keep heat low and cook meat slowly.


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