Home cooking is the way to health, right? Well, it depends. Any form of cooking or baking, basically anything other than eating raw produce can be considered food processing, regardless of whether it happens at your house or in a big factory. So what can we do at home to make our food tasty and preserve or even increase its nutritional value?

Sorry if I misled you into thinking you will learn about the secrets of tasty cooking. As much as I enjoy preparing food and eating what I make at home, I am no chef. What I do specialize in is preparing food in safe ways that don’t rob it of nutrients or introduce any unwanted toxic substances. So let’s look at some major food groups and how they should and should not be handled.

Go slow with meat

When muscle meat (beef, pork, fish, or poultry) is cooked using high-temperature methods (above 300°F / 150°C), carcinogenic substances (heterocyclic amines HAs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons PAHs) are formed. Therefore, it’s advisable to use slow cooking, sous-vide or similar types of gentle heat treating as often as possible. If you don’t want to abstain from barbecuing completely, there are some ways around it. It has been observed that formation of these carcinogens is significantly reduced when using marinades. You will get the best results with ingredients like garlic, beer, red wine, lemon juice, or olive oil. Other common sense things you can do that have notable effects are: avoiding direct exposure of meat to open flame or hot metal for long, flipping meat often, removing charred parts, and not using meat drippings.

Boil your starches

With starches there are two things to consider, their glycemic index (GI) and toxin content. When starches (potatoes, rice, etc.) are cooked in boiling water, their GI is fairly low, around 50 to 60; but when they are roasted, fried or baked at high temperatures, their GI often approaches 100. So avoiding high heat, along with adding fat, vegetables and acids (vinegar, pickle juice), will help lower the GI. When it comes to toxins, temperature also plays a major role. For example, potatoes and wheat contain significant amount of amino acid asparagine, which produces acrylamide when heated above 248°F / 120°C in presence of carbohydrates. Acrylamide causes DNA, neurological and reproductive damage, and is a probable carcinogen. Just so you have an idea, a large serving of fast-food French fries contains about 80 mcg of it, which is hundreds of times more than the acceptable safe level. So yes, boiling or steaming is the way to go with starches.

Right fats for the right occasion

In general, the biggest danger with fats is oxidation. Lipid peroxides initiate a free-radical hell inside our bodies; they cause organ damage, are highly inflammatory, and their consumption paves the way for all kinds of degenerative diseases. Fatty acid (FA) content is what determines how stable the oil will be, with saturated FA being the most stable, monounsaturated somewhere in the middle, and polyunsaturated the most susceptible to oxidation. In the real world, this means that fats such as clarified butter (ghee), beef tallow, lard or coconut oil are good options for high heat environments (baking, roasting) due to their high saturated FA content. Avocado, olive oil and various nut oils consist mostly of monounsaturated FA, so they are ok for low heat (sauteing) or cold kitchen. Grape-seed, corn or safflower oils are high in polyunsaturated FA, so they should not be exposed to any heat. As a side note, deep frying requires oils with a very high smoke point, which only highly processed industrial seed oils can provide. That should be a hint in itself.

Grains and legumes need special treatment

Grains, legumes, nuts and seeds all have one thing in common. Their goal is to make sure a plant will reproduce. Thanks to natural selection, only plants with a good defense mechanism survived, so those that were unfit for animal consumption because they contained enough anti-nutrients had the best chance. But humans, the crafty animals we are, figured out a way to mitigate the harmful effects of these substances. Heating neutralizes some nutrient inhibitors like anti-amylases, others, like phytates, require fermentation, soaking or sprouting to partly remove their harmful effects. Lectins are a bit trickier – cooking or soaking destroys some, but in certain foods, like alfalfa sprouts, it can even increase their content. So if you want to consume foods from any of these four categories on a regular basis, you should learn about them and find out what methods of preparation make them easiest to digest.

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