Worries about foodborne illnesses may compel cooks to blast foods with high temperatures. High heat can kill bacteria that could potentially make you sick, but high heat can also zap nutrients and trigger release of potentially troubling toxins from certain foods.
Grilling is a popular high-heat cooking method - that smoky flavor a staple of summer parties and picnics. When muscle meats (beef, pork, poultry, fish) are cooked at high temperatures - as in grilling, frying, and broiling - heterocyclic amines (HCA) are created. HCAs are chemicals that may increase risk of certain types of cancer. Studies have shown that there may be a link between people who have high intakes of meat cooked at high temperatures and an increased risk of stomach, colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancer.
No set guidelines exist for safe levels of HCA consumption, but you can minimize your risk:
- cook at lower temperatures: In research, HCA levels went up threefold when cooking temperature was boosted from 392°F to 482°F (200°C to 250°C). You can still enjoy your favorite grilled goodies, but you'll want to do so in moderation. Opt instead to oven-roast, bake, boil, stew, poach, or steam your foods, lower-heat cooking methods that will result in lower levels of HCAs.
- don't eat "well": Of course you should eat healthfully, but you should take your meat medium-rare or rare instead of well-done or medium-well. Shorter cooking times could lower levels of HCAs.
- copy fast-food restaurants: In one study, food from fast-food restaurant chains were found to contain low levels of HCAs, which could be due to shorter cook time or to the fact that fast-food burgers are not often cooked "to order" and thus less likely to be overcooked.
- pass on the gravy: Drippings and gravies made from meat can contain relatively high levels of HCAs.
- microwave meat before you cook it: A quick 2-minute precook in the microwave can slash HCAs by 90%, according to some research. Pour off any liquids after microwaving to lower HCAs even more.
Microwaves are another popular high-heat cooking method. Microwaves create their high heat by causing water molecules in the food to rotate, creating friction between molecules and quickly boosting the food's temperature. As long as your microwave is well-maintained and properly used, those microwaves pose no known health risk.
But many healthy foodies have thrown out their microwave, figuring them to be unsafe energy-and-nutrient suckers. Actually, as noted in "Cooking vegetables without losing nutrients," microwaves can be a real health and safety asset in the kitchen. The antioxidants in carrots and spinach actually get a boost from a spin in the microwave.
To minimize nutrient loss and prevent undercooking and risk of foodborne illness:
- even things out: Precut food into small, equally-sized pieces and arrange uniformly on platter. This allows for thorough, even cooking.
- shelter the steam: Use a microwave-safe lid or wrap to keep steam near the food so it cooks uniformly.
- check your tools: Be sure that any containers, plates, or covering you use are made from microwave-safe materials. Some types of materials can melt or seep into food.