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MoonDragon's Health & Wellness
Nutrition Basics

Avoid Over Cooking Your Foods

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Cooking foods for all but brief periods of time can destroy many valuable nutrients. More alarming is that when foods are cooked to the point of browning or charring, the organic compounds they contain undergo changes in structure producing carcinogens.

Barbecued meats seem to pose the worst health threat in this regard. When burning fat drips onto an open flame, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - dangerous carcinogens - are formed. When amino acids and other chemicals found in muscle are exposed to high temperatures, other carcinogens, called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs), are created. In fact, many of the chemicals used to produce cancer in laboratory animals have been isolated from cooked proteins.

It is important to note, though, that cooked meats do not pose the only threat. Even browned or burned bread crusts contain a variety of carcinogenic substances.

The dangers posed by the practice of cooking foods at high temperatures or until browned or burned should not be dismissed. Although eating habits vary widely from person to person, it seems safe to assume that many people consume many grams of overcooked foods a day. By comparison, only half a gram of this same dangerous burned material is inhaled by someone who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day. Clearly, by eating produce raw or only lightly cooked, and by greatly limiting your consumption of meat, you will be doing much to decrease your risk of cancer and, possibly, other disorders.



We know that cooking food has some benefits:
  • It can make food safer.
  • It can concentrate tastes and flavors.
  • It can reduce spoilage.
  • It can soften tough foods.
  • It increases the amount of energy our bodies can get from food.
  • It breaks starch molecules into more digestible fragments.
  • It denatures protein molecules.

But before we get too excited about cooking, the modern diet can be overwhelmingly heat-processed. Higher cooking temperatures can create chemical reactions among amino acids, creatines, and sugars - reactions that may produce dangerous carcinogens and mutagens (compounds that can damage our DNA). We suddenly now have unhealthy compound created in otherwise healthy foods, such as potatoes, fish, and whole grains. You do not have to freak out and toss your barbecue grill into the trash. Instead, start by learning more about these compounds and how they work.


Heat plus food molecules can create several products in the process of chemical conversion (known as cooking). Some of the most notable end products include:
  • Heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Advanced glycation end products
  • Acrylamide

HCAs are made when creatines and amino acids (both found in meats) react together with heat. PAHs include over 100 different compounds formed by the incomplete burning of organic matter (e.g., oil, gas, coal, food, etc.) at temperatures in excess of 392°F. Thus, raw foods do not have HCAs nor PAHs. Indeed, more than 90-percent of our exposure to HCAs and PAHs comes from cooked food. The most concentrated sources include grilled/charred meats and fish. However, ready-to-eat commercial breakfast cereals, processed carbs, fats/oils, and tobacco smoke also contain high amounts of PAHs. PAHs in vegetables and fruits occur mostly due to environmental contamination of air and soil.

There are four factors that influence HCA formation:
  • Type of food.
  • Cooking method.
  • Temperature.
  • Cooking duration.
Temperature is the most important factor in HCA formation. Problems begin at 212°F, with the real nasty HCAs forming at about 572°F

. PAH formation is influenced by:
  • Temperature of cooking.
  • Duration of cooking.
  • Type of fuel used in heating.
  • Distance from heat source.
  • Fat content of the food.
Essentially, the hotter and longer a meat is cooked, the more HCAs and PAHs. Direct heat methods like frying and grilling produce more than indirect-heat methods like stewing, steaming or poaching. Studies estimating the intake of HCAs show an average 26 ng/kg body wt/day for a U.S. population.


HCAs are on the official list of cancer-causing agents published by the NIH. We have known about them since the 1970s and they are straight up genotoxic, meaning that they work at the DNA level causing mutations, deletions, and insertions. This is not good. Thus far, 17 different HCAs have been identified that may increase cancer risk. Along with heme iron and nitrates/nitrites, HCAs and PAHs may be the major reasons that meat is associated with cancer at all. Pickled, smoked, barbecued and processed meats (e.g., bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, salami, bologna, luncheon meats, corned beef, etc.) seem to cause the most health problems. It is the intake of these meats that are more related to cancer risk than total red meat intake alone. Other dense protein foods (milk, eggs, legumes, and organ meats) have very little or no HCA content naturally or when cooked.


To help prevent these hazardous chemical changes in our foods we can start by changing our cooking methods. Opt for slower, indirect-heat methods of cooking such as poaching, stewing, braising, or steaming. We can consume more plants in our diets. Plant-based diets typically contain insignificant amounts of HCAs and moderate amounts of PAHs. Those eating a higher raw plant-based diet tend to consume even lower amounts.


HCAs and PAHs can be removed from the body via detoxification in the liver. A plant-based diet can decrease the extent of DNA damage and oxidation from these compounds. Thus, not only do plants have fewer HCA/PAH-creating compounds, but they also help fight the effects of any of these compounds once created. Experts recommend a ratio of greater than 2:1, plant foods:meats as the minimum recommended intake to support the body’s fight against cancer development. The protective effect seems to increase with ratios greater than this (3:1, etc.). The more plants, the less cancer.


When you grill a burger and char it up good, pop a slice of bread into the toaster, or roast a marshmallow while camping, you are creating the Maillard reaction, which occurs when sugars and proteins in the food react together with heat. Sadly, while possibly increasing the scrumptiousness of these foods (which, by the way, also creates the characteristic flavors of caramel), this reaction can lower the nutritional value and create toxic and/or carcinogenic end products, including advanced glycation end products (AGEs), also known as glycotoxins.

Those browned roasted bits left on the grill after cooking, or the sticky goo left from roasting your marshmallow on a skewer glued to the surfaces, this is what happens in your body with AGEs. Stuff starts to stick together. The roasted-marshmallow AGEs can be created inside our body with aging and high blood sugar. But we also eat AGEs. Virtually any food exposed to extreme heat can scorch, generating AGEs. Adding dry heat to uncooked food can increase that food’s AGE content by 10 to 100 times. But AGEs can be produced during pasteurization, drying, smoking, frying, microwaving and grilling. Any food that contains sugars, fats, and proteins is fair game.

The standard American diet likely contains about 16,000±5,000 kU of AGEs each day. This is three times higher than the safety limit advised by professional organizations. Plant-based diets contain lower amounts, unless they are built upon processed and fried foods. Diets with more raw foods typically contain minimal AGEs.


(Note: Tofu cooked at high temperatures is also quite high, but slightly lower than most meats)

Unprocessed Grains



Processed Cream Cheese



Milk & Yogurt Products


(Especially with no added fats)

Refined Oils


Roasted Nuts

Raw Seeds

Once in the body, AGEs have been shown to negatively affect a majority of cells, tissues, and organs. Fewer AGEs circulating in the system means a lower risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, kidney, cardiovascular, and diabetes.

In animal models, AGEs contribute to:
  • Inflammation
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Kidney Damage
  • Neurodegenerative Disease
  • Muscle Loss
  • Cancer Cell Metastasis
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Alterations in Cell Receptors
  • A Shorter Life
  • Oxidation
However, some suggest that rats/mice are not accustomed to the intake of heated food and might not be an accurate study model that translates to humans. 10-percent of dietary AGEs are absorbed. Of this 10-percent, about 1/3 are excreted in the urine within three days. This means they probably hang around the body wreaking havoc.

  • Roasted/BBQ'd Chicken Thighs With Skin: 16,000
  • Grilled Hot Dogs: 10,000
  • Broiled Chicken Breast: 6,000
  • Fast Food Hamburger: 4,800
  • Microwaved Sausage: 4,800
  • Broiled Tofu: 3,900
  • Feta / American Cheese: 2,500
  • Roasted Nuts & Nut Butters: 2,500
  • Whole Cow's Milk (1 cup): 1,600
  • Restaurant French Fries: 1,500
  • Butter: 1,300
  • Fried Egg: 1,200
  • Boiled Chicken: 1,100
  • Potato Chips: 850
  • Margarine: 850
  • Cottage Cheese: 500
  • Life Cereal: 400
  • Canned Beans: 190
  • Corn Chips: 161
  • Whole Wheat Bread (1 slice): 100
  • Roasted Yam: 75
  • Popcorn: 40
  • Raw Tomato: 20
  • Apple: 10
  • Oatmeal: 4
  • Human Milk (1 cup): 2 (Note: The AGE content of infant formula is higher than that of human or cow's milk.)

Sources: Uribarri J, et al. Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. J Am Diet Assoc 2010;110:911-916; Goldberg T. Advanced glycoxidation end products in commonly consumed foods. J Am Diet Assoc 2004;104:1287-1291.


AGEs are ubiquitous and addictive, since they provide flavor to foods. But they can be controlled through simple methods of cooking, such as keeping the heat down and the water content up in food and by avoiding pre-packaged and fast foods when possible.

Method of food preparation is critical. Heating foods over 446°F seems to be the most problematic. The same 90 gram chicken breast can vary from 1000 to 9000 AGEs: dependin upon type of cooking method used.
  • Frying, grilling, roasting, or broiling: 4000 to 9000 AGEs
  • Boiling, steaming, or stewing: 1000 AGEs
To immediately start consuming 50-percent less AGEs, poach, stew, or steam meals. This 50-percent reduction can decrease plasma levels of AGEs by 30-percent within a month. Cook food at a lower temperature. Do not char it or overcook it. Avoid processed foods, which have more AGEs. Home prepared versions (such as French fries) have fewer AGEs compared to their processed commerical counterparts. Use liquid in cooking (for example, in braising). Use acids such as lemon juice or vinegar in marinades and cooking liquid. These will also help decrease AGE formation.


Acrylamide is another one of the toxic Mallard reaction end products, forming when asparagine reacts with naturally occurring sugars in high carbohydrate/low protein foods subject to high cooking temperatures. Reactions start at 248°F. The higher the cooking temperature and the longer the cooking duration, the more acrylamide. Most foods that contain acrylamide are cooked commercially and contain the acrylamide when purchased. These includ french fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals, crackers, pretzels, coffee, pastries, etc. If those foods are part of your regular food rotation, you had better be worried about more than acylamide such as accumulated grease chunks in your arteries.

Acrylamides are not only formed in commercially prepared foods, but are formed during some home food preparation as well. Significant formation requires temperatures greater than 248°F (water simmers at 190 to 200°F and boils into steam at 206 to 212°F, depending upon altitude ). Diets high in baked or fried starchy foods will contain larger amounts of acrylamide. Diets including more animal products and raw plant foods will be lower. We can also inhale and otherwise absorb this stuff. You will find acrylamide in body lotions, shampoos, tobacco smoke, food packaging, and human breast milk (if mom is ingesting acrylamide).

Early animal research indicates that acrylamide may be genotoxic, carcinogenic, neurotoxic and create reproductive problems. It is currently classified as "probably carcinogenic." Still, results from human studies indicate that ingestion of acrylamide at current levels fails to produce any measurable neurotoxicity or increases in cancer. Average intake is estimated to be 0.3 to 2 µg acrylamide/kg bodyweight/day for developed countries. The WHO concluded that an adequate margin of safety at 1 to 4 µg /kg bodyweight over a lifetime for humans.

While we do not know for sure about acrylamide consumption and disease, it might be best to limit exposure and err on the side of caution. You can note that the hight acrylamide-containing foods are not all that great for you anyway and should be eliminated or eaten sparingly..


  • Prioritize your diet. If your diet is based on processed foods, meats and alcohol, then do not worry about AGEs in your morning bran flakes. You woll probably get a disease related to your overall lifestyle first.
  • If your diet is already based on whole, unprocessed foods, including lots of plants, then you can start fine-tuning the finer points of your food preparation methods.
  • A diet based on highly processed foods and meats is not the best option for health and can contribute to a range of conditions, from obesity, heart disease, to cancer.
  • Hightly processed and heated food-stuff tends to be the most dangerous, including potato chips, French fries, commercial breakfast cereals, grilled meats, fast food meats, deli meats, etc. There are many reasons to avoid these processed foods. These cooking-based chemicals are just one more. Women who consume meat very well done, appear to be at nearly 5 times higher risk for breast cancer compared to women who consumed their meats rare or medium done. This, however, raises the so-called "paradox" of preparing meat noted by the Harvard Health Letter. Well-cooked and you risk cancer; undercooked and you risk E. coli food poisoning.
  • When preparing foods, consume unprocessed items that are boiled, steamed, stewed, sprouted, fermented or poached. Avoid high temperature grilling, broiling, roasting, and frying. Eating boiled meat in water (not broiled) is probably the safest. Studies show if you eat meat that never goes above 212°F, DNA damage is significantly less than if you eat meat dry cooked at higher temperatures.

  • Reduce carcinogens by doing the following:
    • Use leaner meats.
    • Choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat and avoid processed meats.
    • Use an acidic marinade for meats.
    • Use lower temperatures and moist heat.
    • Do not show off for your grilling buddies with flare-ups.
    • Do not overcook your foods.
    • Try healthier versions - Eat a veggie burger and a regular burger instead of two regular burgers.
    • The levels of heterocyclic amines flowing through one’s body may drop to zero after refraining from eating meat for just 24 hours. If you practice Meatless Mondays, by Tuesday, morning urine levels of PhIP and MeIQx (one the most potent mutagens ever tested) become undetectable.

    It would be impossible to eliminate all carcinogens in food. Make sure you are getting plenty of antioxidants in your diet to help prevent cellular damage and repair damage done by free radicals. While high temperatures can create some harmful compounds, it can also destroy harmful compounds, such as harmful bacteria. There is a trade off. No need to opt for chicken sashimi just yet.


  • Some food derived AGEs may have beneficial antioxidative and desmutagenic (mutation-fighting) properties.
  • HCAs and PAHs seem to be more harmful than acrylamide and AGEs.
  • Tea and Yerba Mate may inhibit the formation of AGEs.
  • Microwaving increased AGE content more rapidly compared to conventional cooking methods in one study.
  • High levels of methylglyoxal, an intermediate product of the Maillard reaction, are found in commercial soft drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup.
  • Almonds in most raw almond butters from California are required to go through steam pasteurization. This only raises the temperature of the nut to around 160°F.
  • Low carb baked goods with sugar alcohols (maltitol, xylitol) do not create Maillard reactions. (Unfortunately, the trade-off is often intestinal distress. Maybe just consider cutting back on the pancake intake altogether.)


  • Is cooked food toxic?
  • Carcinogens in Many Foods

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