Minimizing Toxins & Securing Nutrients When Cooking With Proteins
We use a lot of animal products in our food, so it may not surprise you that we have some tips on how to reduce your chances of introducing toxins into your cooking as well as how to make sure your body is actually absorbing the nutrients.
Meat is a great way to improve our diets by providing easily digestible fats, proteins, specific vitamins, and minerals. We recognize that when it comes to diets, everything depends on our own individual biochemistry. It’s all about what makes you feel great and helps you perform your best!
Maximizing the Most out of Proteins
Even the best grocery stores and butcher shops today only carry muscle meat, like steaks, roasts, chops, and legs. Muscle meat contains plenty of iron, protein, and the amino acid, methionine--all of which are important for our health. However, the equation is not as clear; knowing which healthy benefits muscle meat has does not necessarily equal what is healthy for our bodies. Too much of any of these nutrients can be detrimental, especially methionine. If you eat muscle meat for almost every meal, you are likely eating too much methionine. Once methionine is in the body, it synthesizes homocysteine, another amino acid. Increased levels of homocysteine in the body have been linked to heart disease CITE. Still, it’s more complicated than just eliminating beef from the diet. Beef can be eaten in a healthy manner. To do so, the body also needs vitamin B12, vitamin B6, folate, choline, betaine, and especially the amino acid glycine. Each of these nutrients help to neutralize the effects of homocysteine. Luckily, all of these nutrients can be found in other cuts of meat, like offal and bones.
Glycine is abundant in animal bones, and it becomes most available when these bones are boiled for an extended period of time. (hint wint, bone broth.) It is crucial for many of our body’s functions, especially in the healing of muscle and the lubrication of our joints. Glycine is also required for the synthesis of DNA and the production of an antioxidant called glutathione, and it helps regulate everything from digestion to blood sugar to neurotransmission.
In addition, incorporating offal (organ meats) into your diet will up your intake of a greater variety of nutrients. Offal is extremely nutrient-dense, and it gives us an abundance of vitamin A, vitamin D, B vitamins, and minerals like copper, potassium, manganese, iron, and zinc. Here’s the catch: you don’t want to switch to an entirely offal-filled diet (just like you shouldn’t eat only muscle meat). Ideally, you should try to eat as many different cuts as possible, prepared in the same proportions as they appear in the animal itself. Meatballs are a great way to incorporate an array of animal cuts into your meal. Our meatballs are around 1/4 organ meat and 3/4 muscle meat, just like they appear in the full body of the animal.
Really, Really Delicious and Nutritions
(...You may be introducing toxins by cooking methods)
Marinades and Seasonings
Cooking the whole animal is only the first step. It’s equally as important to consider the ingredients with which the meat is being prepared. After all, why spend time sourcing excellent products if all of their benefits are destroyed during the cooking process?
One major difference between our marinades and common recipes is that we eliminate acidic and sugary ingredients. Acidic foods, like vinegar, are often used to tenderize meat fibers. The problem with this type of tenderizing is that it depends upon the unraveling of the meat proteins. When proteins unravel, the amino acids that make up the protein molecules are much easier to dislodge upon heating. Once the amino acids are free of the protein structure, they are free to oxidize and wreak havoc (see section below about MSG). There are much better ways to keep meat tender. Slow, gentle cooking is a great place to start. Another problem with vinegar is that if meats are exposed to far too much acid for too long, the marinade is actually counterproductive—it will turn the meat dry!
Sugars, on the other hand, don’t unravel proteins. Instead, they accelerate browning reactions on the outside of the meat. There’s a name for these browning reactions: Maillard reactions. Maillard reactions occur between sugars and the amino acids in the meat proteins. When meat hits a high temperature, the sugars and amino acids react to form a series of new flavor compounds. These new flavor compounds react, beginning a series of reactions that continue to form additional flavor compounds. Eventually these new flavor compounds form larger compounds called melanoidin pigments, which give seared meats (and many other cooked foods) their browned color. It is important to note that Maillard reactions can occur without added sugar since as all meats contain some amount of natural starches and sugars! However, these reactions increase rapidly as soon as additional sugar is introduced via a marinade or a rub. While Maillard reactions can happen at low temperatures, they are most active at 300 degrees and above.
Sp, what’s wrong with the Maillard reaction? While it certainly adds flavor and visual appeal, the Maillard reaction also leads to the formation of a couple of carcinogenic compounds: acrylamide and heterocyclic amines (HAs). Acrylamide concentration is highest in browned starchy vegetables, while HAs are most often seen in browned or charred meats. We’ll explain more soon.
Instead of using harmful ingredients in our marinades, we incorporate antioxidants. Three of our favorites are turmeric, sour cherry juice, and rosemary. All of these ingredients help to counter the oxidative and carcinogenic effects of cooking proteins by binding with free radicals. Plus their flavors are great!
This smoke then coats the meat with PAHs. It’s not exactly what you want to be eating all summer long.
While there is plenty of scientific evidence that both HAs and PAHs are present in proteins cooked over high heat, and that both of these compounds are toxic to humans, it is not entirely clear at what concentration we begin to see detrimental effects. At Mission Heirloom, you’ll never run the risk of eating HAs or PAHs. (However, eating carefully grilled meats or lightly browned roasts is likely okay, as long as they’re eaten in small amounts.)
To avoid HA production, we cook all of our meats in our precise combi oven at 300 degrees or below and keep the humidity at 100%. The high humidity in the oven keeps the temperature very consistent, and it preserves moisture within the meat. The result of this type of cooking is that there is very little browning on the exterior of the meat, but it is far healthier than using a searing hot saute pan.
Fixing your marinade is only the first step in limiting the toxicity of cooked meat. It is also crucial to analyze temperature and cooking methods. High heat cooking like searing and grilling can lead to some pretty scary results, namely heterocyclic amines (HAs -mentioned above) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Both of them pose risk to your health because if activated by enzymes, there is the potential for a spiraling DNA mutation which can lead to cancer.
The first carcinogen mentioned, HA, is formed when meat components called creatine and creatinine interact with sugar and the meat’s amino acids at high heat. At 300 degrees or above (the ideal temperature for the Maillard reaction), HA production is rapid, especially at the surface of the meat where the temperature is highest.
Another set of carcinogens to avoid are PAHs, formed when organic materials like wood (i.e. charcoal) and fat combine and burn. So when fat drips from a piece of meat into lit charcoal, the charcoal sends up smoke that is filled with PAHs.
Fortunately, PAHs are a little easier to avoid—simply avoid the grill.
For home cooking methods, explore more gentle cooking to preserve nutrients and minimize carcinogens. We usually do this two ways: meatballs and braised stews. Both methods allow us to use a wide range of animal parts and keep the meat moist, flavorful, and safe.
While there have been studies showing an increase in cancer amongst red meat eaters, these studies all look at the more typical Western approach to meat cookery—heavy on the muscle meat and char. We believe that by taking the above steps (using the whole animal, marinating properly, and cooking low, slow, and humid) we limit, if not eliminate, any harmful effects of eating meat. With that being said, there’s still one more variable to consider when preparing meat and other high-protein foods: free glutamate.
The Don’t Dos, Stay-Away-Froms
MSG and Free Glutamates
What comes to mind when you think monosodium glutamate (MSG)? If it’s an isolated It’s likely not the whole story because MSG (the derivatives and components) are extremely pervasive in our processed-food laden world. Why? It has to do with the breakdown of proteins.
Glutamate, or more accurately, glutamic acid, is one of the 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. (Glutamic acid is technically the whole form of the amino acid and glutamate is the amino acid minus a hydrogen molecule; for our purposes we’ll refer to both as simply glutamates. Glutamic acid almost always exist as glutamate in the human body.) Glutamate molecules are found in many different proteins, and they are crucial to our body’s function.
They are what’s called excitatory neurotransmitters, which means they help to regulate the excitatory pathway in our brains and in the rest of our nervous system. The excitatory pathway is responsible for things like the release of adrenaline, the control of moment, and the expression of thought. It works in tandem with the inhibitory pathway, which calms and relaxes the body and brain. When our bodies are working properly, there is a balance between the excitatory and inhibitory pathways, keeping our mind and body in check. However, when we have an imbalance on either side, we start to see problems, both on a minor and a major scale. Increased levels of glutamate in our bodies are one way that the scale can be tipped out of whack. High levels of glutamate increase the body’s excitatory pathways to exaggerated levels, which makes it hard for the inhibitory pathways to work properly.
Another important function of glutamate has to do with inflammation. The concentration of glutamate in the blood tells the body whether one is in a high or a low state of inflammation. If we’re in a high state of inflammation, the body sends out a stress response through the immune system. If the body is constantly exposed to high levels of glutamate, it will continue to send out these stress responses and keep inflammation levels high. As you can probably imagine, it isn’t healthy for the body to be in a constant state of stress and inflammation; chronic inflammation has been linked with many different disorders including autoimmune and behavioral diseases.
In other words, when consumed in a natural, balanced amount, glutamates are a great thing. The problem only occurs when we increase our glutamate intake above a normal range. Unfortunately, this happens pretty consistently in the processed food-filled Standard American Diet.
Looking into how our body digest processed foods and glutamate
When we eat a food item like beef that is high in protein, our digestive system breaks down the proteins into their constituent amino acids. The body does this process gradually and with control. Based on our body’s need, enzymes called proteases will release amino acids from their proteins (at this point, we call them free amino acids) and transfer them to whichever part of the body needs them. This process is tightly regulated, and, when applied to natural whole foods, is a requirement for life.
When processed foods are manufactured, proteins break down in the same way that they do in our bodies. However, since this breakdown is occurring outside of the body, the now-freed amino acids, like free glutamate, don’t have a job. They are released into the food, where they may bond with other compounds like sodium or potassium. These new molecules are far simpler and more easy to digest. Even when found on its own as a free molecule, glutamate tastes undeniably savory. When glutamate bonds with salts like sodium and potassium, it further amplifies this flavor, giving the eater the experience of umami. Manufacturers have figured out that we tend to crave and enjoy highly savory foods, so they deliberately take a often take advantage of this bonding process to amplify the flavor of the food. This is why we frequently see free glutamate-filled processed foods.
As soon as we take a bite of food that is high in free glutamates, the glutamate receptors on our tongues signal to the rest of the body that we are about to ingest a lot of protein. If we’re eating a steak, this signaling process is a good thing. Steak is full of protein, and we need to be ready for it. However, most processed foods that are high in free glutamate are not high in protein. If we eat a bag of Doritos, our body prepares for an influx of protein that never appears. We over-stimulate the body for no reason, exposing the body to levels of glutamate for which the body is not prepared, and the result can be a splitting headache.
When we constantly bombard the body with excess glutamate, the body adapts by forming new glutamate receptors, effectively increasing our tolerance for the amino acid. Increased tolerances are not actually a good thing. There is a limit to the number of glutamate receptors our bodies can handle before cells become over taxed and succumb to disease or cell death. Furthermore, some scientists are researching the idea that glutamate consumption has direct effect on neurological and behavioral disorders like autism.
So how do we limit our exposure to these excess glutamates?
The first step is to limit or even eliminate processed foods. At Mission Heirloom, we make everything from scratch, there are no pre-mixes, or anything sketchy--we don’t even need to worry about the processed food issue. Next, we consider the ways in which we can limit the breakdown of proteins before they hit the digestive system. There are a few culprits that we address that you can choose to have or leave out of your kitchen.
Look out, glutamate issue here--
1. Vinegar: There are two issues with using vinegar in the kitchen. First, the fact that vinegar is a fermented product is problematic. Vinegar is made by fermenting fruits and starches into alcohol, and then fermenting those alcohols again to turn them into vinegar. Each of these cycles activates enzymes that break down whatever proteins are present in the original fruit or starch, releasing free glutamates. The total free glutamate count will vary depending on the style of vinegar, but they all contain a noticeable level of free glutamates. Second, when mixed with protein, vinegar unravels protein structure (see above). You can see the ways in which acid interacts with meat by marinating a steak in a highly acidic substance. Over time, the exterior of the meat will turn mealy and soft. It not only doesn’t taste great—it also increases the likelihood that free glutamates will be released.
2. Time: The longer a protein-filled substance cooks, the more concentrated any free amino acids will become. For example, tomatoes naturally contain a small amount of free glutamate (around 0.1%). Eaten raw or lightly cooked, they will retain this small amount of free glutamate, but it will only cause reactions in people that are highly sensitive. However, when tomatoes are cooked down into say, tomato paste, any free glutamates present in the tomato are concentrated. In other words, cooking doesn’t actually increase the levels of free glutamate, but it does reduce the amount of water, in the food. Each serving of tomato paste has more free glutamates in it than the same serving of fresh tomatoes, simply by virtue of the fact that tomatoes contain more water. Cooking time also affects items like bone broth. The longer the bones are cooked, the more gelatinous and collagen-filled the broth becomes. Once the collagen is fully released from the bones, it is more susceptible to protein degradation and free glutamate formation.
3. Sugar: As we hinted at above, sugar does not increase free glutamate content on its own. Rather, it works to speed up the Maillard reaction on the surface of the food. This reaction is the result of the breakdown of surface proteins and gives a golden color on the surface of meat. Remember, protein breakdown = free amino acids.