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When I first returned from India, I co-directed Deepak Chopra’s Ayurvedic Health Center, and we used to host many Ayurvedic doctors from India. This was an opportunity to witness firsthand some traditional Ayurvedic cooking methods. I learned that one of the major cooking rules was to cook food on a low flame. While it takes longer to cook foods this way, new science is confirming the reasoning.
Cooking over a low flame ensures that the food is never overheated, thus sparing the nutrients while making the food more easily digested and assimilated. This low-flame cooking technique is also demonstrated by the cooking of herbs into massage oils to make them more therapeutic. One of the massage oils we use at LifeSpa has been cooked over a low flame for 30 days!
Ayurveda warns about the dangers of cooking foods on high heat and, just last fall, the FDA put out a report warning against overcooking your food, as it creates a chemical called, acrylamide, which has caused cancer in animal studies. In 2010, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that acrylamide is also a human health concern: (1)
“High temperature cooking, such as frying, roasting, or baking, is most likely to cause acrylamide formation…acrylamide is found mainly in foods made from plants, such as potato products, grain products, or coffee. Acrylamide does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat, and fish products. Generally, acrylamide is more likely to accumulate when cooking is done for longer periods or at higher temperatures.”
Acrylamide is formed when the sugar or starches in the plant stick to an amino acid called asparagine, which naturally occurs in the plant. These are all perfectly healthy until you overheat them!
In one study, French fries produced acrylamides when the cooking temperature reached 300-375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toasted bread was also studied, and it was found that lighter browned toast had significantly less acrylamides than darker toasted bread. (3)
Sadly, researchers believe that 40% of the calories that make up the American diet contain acrylamide.
We all know what happens when you overcook foods with a lot of sugar: the sugar caramelizes. This is an example of the sugar reaching a temperature where it can glycate and attach to asparagine.
The best way to avoid this chemical toxin is to do the following:
- Boil or steam your veggies.
- Bake with low sugar-content ingredients and veggies.
- Don’t over-toast or over-fry your foods; it’s best to avoid frying anything.
- Cut your veggies into smaller pieces so they do not require as much heat to cook.
- Choose tea over coffee, as it has negligible amounts of acrylamide.
A Word on Coffee
Unfortunately, coffee has extremely high levels of acrylamide, so it’s best to limit your intake. Avoid pre-ground or instant coffee, as it has significantly more acrylamide than fresh brewed coffee. (2)