What happens when we cook food?
After having researched on the healthiest cookware, I naturally went to look onto the healthiest cooking methods. What I found is much more complicated! Cooking affects many aspects of the food. A chemical reaction occurs, and the impact goes far beyond the vitamin and antioxidant content.
The Maillard reaction
A French scientist, Louis-Camille Maillard, has studied the reaction of amino acids and reducing sugars during heating. This is what causes the food to brown, like in searing, roasting, toasting, grilling or frying, as example. To put it in very simple terms, the Maillard reaction is when the sugars and proteins are condensed through heat and forms glycation and advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). Those newly formed substances are at the base of many modern diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, renal problems and many other ageing related illnesses.
What does heating do to foods?
The heating process modifies the nutritional value of food through the Maillard reaction. Cooking also decreases vitamin C content, and other important nutrients such as copper, zinc, and iron binds with the substances formed during the Maillard reaction, which can affect their absorption. When the food browns, more than just creating AGEs and compromise the nutritional value, a dangerous toxin, acrylamide, is created. The only benefits of cooking food are the reduction of potentially dangerous bacteria and the increased availability of antioxidants. One thing about bacteria though: our body is naturally well equipped to fight them. If we consume only fresh and properly washed plant-based food, the risks of bacterial food intoxication are quite low.
The health impact of cooked food
The substances formed during cooking (AGEs and other culprits) tend to accumulate together in tissues, increasing oxidative stress, diseases and ageing. The most common symptom of ageing, at a molecule level, is the accumulation of altered proteins from the Maillard reaction. This phenomenon increases with insulin resistance. So as we age, our body often increases its resistance to insulin. At extreme levels, this leads to diabetes. But even people with mild insulin resistance can increase their risks of accumulating altered proteins, which can speed-up the ageing process. In short, cooked food can contribute to premature ageing, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, renal problems, obesity and many other serious health conditions that we see today.
What to do
Of course, increasing our raw food consumption is a no-brainer. But for those still cooking (this is me), methods that includes water can prevent the temperatures to go high enough to create browning. Steaming, poaching, blanching and braising are by far the best options. Beware though to use too many water. Boiling can wash away some beneficial vitamins and nutrients. Cooking in a slow cooker can also limit the risks by using a very low heat. Keeping the temperatures below 120°F – 150°F is the key. One other important thing: do not overcook! The more you cook, the greater the risk of heat induced reactions.
Too bad for my grilled vegetables and crusty bread! Crock-pot, be ready to get back to work!
And you, what are your thoughts about cooking? Share your comments ad reaction with us!