Your cooking habits could be cooking up a cancer risk.
Well-intentioned cooks may be making costly mistakes in the kitchen without even knowing it. These three techniques—which we’ve all used many times—may actually be toxic to your health. Read more so you can avoid them, or at least reduce how often you use them, when you’re whipping up dinner.
Raw and undercooked meats are a risk to your health, but overcooked meats can be toxic, too. Cooking foods at extremely high temperatures—around 300°F—can char them. Char, research suggests, produces chemicals and byproducts that may be linked to cancer.
Heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are two chemicals formed when meat is cooked with high-temp methods, like grilling or pan-frying. These chemicals may cause changes in your DNA that can increase your risk for cancer.
HCAs form when amino acids and creatine (substances that are found in meat and muscle) react to the high temps. HCAs are not found in significant amounts in other foods besides meat that’s cooked at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat drip directly onto the fire or cooking surface and turn into smoke. That smoke contains the PAHs, and it can adhere or seep into the surfaces of the foods you’re cooking. In addition to pan-frying and grilling, smoking foods can create PAHs.
If you can’t give up your grilled meats, practice indirect heat cooking. This way, your beef, fish, pork, and poultry are cooked through with plenty of smoky flavor, but you can avoid the direct flame-to-meat flicker that is possibly risky. If you get hot spots in the grill and char a few edges, just cut them away before eating. Turn your meats frequently, too. This will help prevent char and uneven cooking.
This cooking hazard isn’t just about the additional calories deep-frying adds to foods. Instead, it’s about a chemical that’s created when some foods, potatoes in particular, are fried at high temperatures.
Acrylamide is a chemical that’s used mainly in industrial settings, such as treating wastewater and making paper. It’s found in large amounts in cigarette smoke, which is the primary way humans are exposed to the chemicals. It is also made when some starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures, such as those reached during deep-frying. The chemical is not found in raw foods, according to the American Cancer Society; it’s produced as a result of the frying.
Research into the effects of acrylamide on the body has turned up mixed results. In rodent models, exposure to the compound increases the risk for several types of cancer. In humans, the studies have not found consistent evidence of this increased risk. Some studies suggest the high-heat cooking method increases the risk for prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer. Likewise, deep-frying foods is linked to several other health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
While it is somewhat reassuring the human studies have not found a significant connection between acrylamides and cancer, it’s better to play it safe, especially if you have any family history with cancer. Limit your exposure by cutting down fried foods. If you can’t give up your fries, bake them or cook them in an air fryer more often, and reserve the deep-fried stuff for a special treat.
Heating the Wrong Oils
Extra-virgin olive oil is the ultimate kitchen staple. It’s hard to do much of anything in a pan, food processor, or blender that doesn’t involve this essential ingredient. In recent years, a bit of a myth has attached itself to EVOO, however. Heating olive oil doesn’t make it toxic, but that’s not the case for other common oils.
Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fat (corn, sunflower, and soybean oils) do break down and produce potentially dangerous compounds at high heat. These compounds include lipid peroxides, which can destroy healthy cells, and acrolein and aldehydes, which have been shown to increase the risk of some cancers.
This toxic effect is the result of these oils breaking down and oxidizing during the high-temp sauté, stir-fry, or pan fry. Olive oil, on the other hand (and monounsaturated fats like it—canola and safflower are two), is more stable at these high temperatures. Plus, olive oil contains natural antioxidants that help fight the destructive nature of heated cooking.
That being said, olive oil does have a relatively low smoke point—it can’t take ultra-high-heat cooking like frying. For those purposes, you may need to look for an oil like canola oil or peanut oil, which is monounsaturated and has a high smoke point.
Don’t banish your polyunsaturated oils to the trash bin. Indeed, they are still quite healthy. Use them to make salad dressings or pestos; stir them into soup or slosh them over steamed green beans just before serving. Look for tasty ways to incorporate them into your cooking—without intense heating—because they’re loaded with heart-healthy fats your body needs.