Alright, I’ll admit that it sounds a bit dramatic. But, if you’ve seen any of the recent directive by the Food and Drug Administration it may not be that far from the truth.
It seems that as recently as a decade ago (2002), Swedish researchers discovered that a byproduct of cooking certain foods is carcinogenic. Not really big news in itself, since every other day we are bombarded with the new understanding that everything we are doing in life is not only wrong, but it is – in fact – the easiest way to give ourselves the gift of an early grave. The truly disappointing tidbit – is that this byproduct is a result of browning high starch/sugar foods (you know…all the tasty ones) – and like most Americans; “Brown” is my favorite flavor.
Acrylamide is a chemical that is formed when Asparagine (a non-essential amino acid first found in asparagus and utilized for neurological functions) and reducing-sugars (glucose, galactose, fructose, etc) meet in temperatures in excess of 250F.
So what’s the big deal? Well lab animals which were fed diets containing Acrylamide in excess of 500 to 2000 times the amount normally found in the human diet developed a whole host of nasty issues, including cancer. If it makes you feel any better a woman died in 2007 from drinking too much water. So apparently nothing is safe to stick in your mouth.
I briefly thought about writing out a chemical reaction to illustrate this; but my brain already hurts trying to remember all this chemistry…
So Let’s look at it in terms of food:
Russet Potato Sticks + Canola Oil + 375F (for 5-7 minutes) = Delicious Cancer (maybe…)
The Russet Potato + Water + 212F (for 22-25 minutes) =
the reason your gin-swilling grandmother made it to 102-years old (maybe…)
The natural sugars in the potato (derived from the starches) and the abundantly available asparagine amino acid form the chemical hidden in the french fry’s siren’s call of a crispy, golden crust. The lower temperature of the boiled/steamed potatoes is not hot enough for browning, and therefore does not produce as much of the chemical. Which, according to the FDA may mean it’s safer to eat…
It’s all well and good to try to demonize the humble pomme frite, the truth is we are consuming this chemical all the time. It’s found to some degree in nearly every heat-treated (non-animal) food. Here in Seattle – where Starbucks Employees rival the entire population of Wyoming – every cup of coffee is swimming in Acrylamide. Coffee beans are roasted after all…for hours and hours (and Acrylamide increases over time with substantial heat).
What about Bread, which has been in the homo sapiens’ diet since the dawn of the Neolithic Age (that’s 10,000 years and counting), maybe longer? What did you think made that delicious crust all brown and, uhm, “crusty”? It’s Acrylamide (or at least contains it)!
Remember over the summer when you were eating healthy and grilling your vegetables? Yup, that wonderfully full flavored char was bad news, too. Toasting marshmallows? Never again! Do you still have Halloween leftovers staring at you from the recesses of your pantry? Cocoa Beans are roasted before getting ground into chocolate. Bummer!
Before you do something crazy and start seriously considering a Raw Foods Diet (j/k to all my raw food foodies!) you should know that life isn’t sooooo dire. There are some things you can do to reduce your exposure:
– Try not to burn things. The next time you forget your grilled cheese on the stove, instead of trying to scrape off the black bits into the sink with the back of your butter knife (you know you would), make a new one. Keep your bread in general on the lighter brown side of toasted.
– Follow your manufacturers stated directions. The FDA will be issuing guidance soon to food manufacturers to find ways to reduce the concentration of Acrylamide in food. So if the box says 325F for 8-10 minutes; don’t bake it at 350F for 14-minutes – you are just going to be increasing the amount of cancer agents in your foods…
– Brown = Frown. There really aren’t that many words that rhyme with brown. If you have the choice between “regular” or “extra crispy,” think of ordering something else once an a while. When I go to the local burger joint, I like extra crispy fries as much as the next person, but I’m just as happy with a non-charred salad too (occasionally).
– Grill with caution. Don’t go crazy with your heat. A medium grill works just as well as a grill set on high. Cut back on your oil that you use – oil transfers heat exceptionally well and will make charring easier. Turn often, and pull your vegetables from the grill as soon as they are done – or a couple of seconds early for a really nice tender-crisp texture.
– Low and Slow. If you like roasting nuts like almonds – due it at a lower temperature. 160F for 2-hours will take out the raw taste without browning the almonds too much. That is true for almost anything you stick in your oven, or in a pan, or on the grill, or… you get the idea.
– Eat a sensible diet!
While it’s fun to poke fun at the drama of the ever changing world of nutrition and health, it’s important to remember that a well rounded diet goes a long way. Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with anti-oxidants which protect you from those reducing-sugars!
If you are the type of person that get’s your 5-servings a day of fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables; the person who focuses on whole grains, lean meats, good fats and low fat dairy… having the infrequent basket of golden fries won’t be what makes or breaks your shot at breaking “gammy’s” high score for “years on this Earth.”