Slow Food Nation

The healthy foodie’s new motto? Turn down the hat and cook it in slow-mo

Slow Food Nation
The healthy foodie’s new motto? Turn down the heat and cook it in slow-mo

Baby, it’s cold outside. Snuggling with your man (or cocooning avec kitty and the Sunday New York Times) has never been more attractive. Romantic home-cooked meals are a mainstay of winter nesting and, as the mercury drops, appetites run toward heartier fare. But before you reach for the porterhouse, consider this: frying up that steak may be hazardous to your health.

Red meat is not the enemy; the danger lies in the cooking method. Meats cooked using dry, high-temperature techniques, such as grilling, broiling and frying, have been proven to contain high concentrations of a class of toxins known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs). According to a research team led by Dr. Helen Vlassara, professor of medicine and geriatrics and director of the Division of Experimental Diabetes and Aging at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, AGEs are produced in much lower concentrations when animal products are cooked using wet, lower-temperature methods, such as stewing, steaming or boiling.

Just what are these AGEs, you ask? They’re toxins produced by the interaction of sugars, proteins and certain fats under elevated temperatures, and they’ve been proven to cause inflammation and oxidative stress (damage linked to aging) inside our bodies. This, says Dr. Vlassara, contributes to common aging-related illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and heart disease. While Alzheimer’s seems a lifetime away—you’re still paying back your student loan, for crying out loud—“AGEs accumulate in the body over time, and the more one eats [now], the earlier AGE levels get to be at the level that starts to cause disease,” says Dr. Vlassara. In other words, the fried steak, grilled chicken and roasted lamb you chow down on now will have a definite impact on your health later. Or even sooner than we think, according to one well-respected dermatologist.


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“As soon as you minimize AGE consumption, you’ll see improvement in your skin,” says Dr. Fredric Brandt, the Miami- and New York City–based dermatologist and founder of the Dr. Brandt Skincare line, who blames AGEs (among other culprits) for premature aging. Unfortunately, he says, most Americans (and Canadians) are constantly on a high-AGE diet.

AGEs are also produced when food products are sterilized and pasteurized. High-temperature sterilization of canned goods and pasteurization of dairy and juice ensure the safety of those products, so avoiding them isn’t really an option. But cutting AGEs elsewhere is key. “Don’t caramelize your food,” advises Dr. Brandt. “Try to stew, poach or boil, or cook it over low heat for longer periods.” He also advises avoiding refined foods in favour of a balanced diet with plenty of whole grains, vegetables and antioxidant-rich fruit such as berries.

Dr. Vlassara’s research also shows that you can somewhat reduce the AGE concentration in meat by marinating it in an acid such as lemon juice, tomato sauce or vinegar before frying or grilling. Furthermore, she adds, “the idea is not to stop eating things we want but to reduce the amount and frequency of those foods by half.” If you love your charred sesame-crusted tuna, keep it on the menu. Ditto for the grilled quail you were planning to serve at your next girlfriends’ night in. As with other indulgences, make “moderation” your mantra.

Plus, lowering a dish’s AGE count does not have to mean lowering your foodie cred, says Toronto-based hot-chef-about-town Jamie Kennedy. Use the study findings as motivation to discover the joys of cooking at a slower pace. “In the winter, it’s comforting and appropriate to choose dishes that require long, gentle cooking and that are best enjoyed with a compatible red wine and good company,” he says.

So put ratatouille, chicken stew or white-bean chili on the burner (if you want to brown any meats, marinate them in an acid first). Then, enjoy the wait.


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