Humans have been cooking for hundreds of thousands of years and this process has greatly benefited our health, aiding with digestion and the elimination of dangerous bacteria. In fact, many posit that cooking helped propel human evolution and advanced our cognitive and physiological function. However, some types of cooking can form compounds called advanced glycation end products, or sometime aptly shortened as AGEs, that are harmful to our health.
What Are Advanced Glycation End Products?
Advanced glycation end products are damaging compounds that form when sugars combine with protein (amino acids) and fat. Some AGEs are produced inside the body – for example diabetics actively make them – but for the most part, our primary source of AGEs come from the diet. Specific cooking methods, as well as specific foods, are more likely to generate AGEs than others.
Some foods that are more likely to produce AGEs when cooked are:
- Meat (especially red meat)
The primary cooking methods that yield AGEs are:
- Deep frying
These cooking methods are what create browning, caramelization and flavour in many recipes – especially when using animal-based foods. Unfortunately, these high heats are also problematic for our health.
Health Risks of Advanced Glycation End Products
Consumption and accumulation of AGEs in the body can lead to inflammation and oxidation, and can interfere with our cell function including lipid synthesis, mitochondrial metabolism and cell signaling. AGEs can lead to a host of health problems and chronic diseases, including:
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- Atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease
- Kidney disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases
- Skin aging and overall aging
While a standard maximum amount of AGE consumption hasn’t been identified, studies that examine low-AGE and high-AGE diets have found – not surprisingly – that lower consumption of AGEs leads to more positive health outcomes such as reduced inflammation, weight loss, lowered risk of diabetes and kidney disease, fewer age-related diseases and a longer life span.
But Aren’t Some AGE Foods Also Healthy?
Given that I’ve written here about the health benefits of certain AGE-containing foods, such as eggs, nuts and seeds, as well as discussed the perks of some meat-focused therapeutic diets like Paleo or keto, you might be wondering whether it’s worth eating them or if everything you eat is going to harm you.
It’s all about context. In functional nutrition, we need to consider the what (the specific food), the how (how a food is prepared) and how much we eat of that food, along with other factors that may influence our health such as family history, gender, age, previous diagnoses, digestive function, genetic weaknesses, immune system function and more.
With AGEs, cooking and preparation count for a lot. Many AGEs can be easily reduced or avoided through cooking methods (more on that below). A gently poached or hard-boiled egg can be a wonderful addition to your breakfast, lunch or dinner, or be eaten as a snack. If you deep-fry that same egg, and then slap it on a white-flour English muffin with processed meat and cheese, the nutritional value will change and more AGEs will be created and consumed.
How to Prevent Advanced Glycation End Products
There is no reason to eschew cooking in favour of an all-raw diet. The good news is advanced glycation end products can be drastically reduced by virtue of the way we cook and prepare our food, as well as the specific foods we choose to eat to counteract the effects of AGEs in our bodies.
Here’s how to prevent the formation and accumulation of advanced glycation end products.
Use Low Heat + Watery Cooking Methods
There are a few elements that lead to a perfect storm of AGEs: high heat and dry heat used for longer periods of time. In contrast, low and moist heat used for a shorter amount of time limit AGE formation in food. That means cooking methods that use moisture such as steaming, poaching, boiling and stewing are much better options than the cooking methods I mentioned earlier in this post like searing, broiling, frying, grilling, etc, which are high and dry heat.
Antioxidant-rich foods contain compounds that help counteract the effects of AGEs. Try including berries, dark leafy greens, garlic, onion, citrus fruits and turmeric in your diet. These 12 most nutritious foods at the grocery store are a great place to start!
Consume Lots of Plants
Plant-based foods such as gluten-free grains, vegetables, fruits and beans are low in AGEs – even when cooked – and are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. As a bonus, plants contain nutrients that support detoxification, immunity, brain health blood sugar balance and digestion.
Apply High Heat Sparingly
I’m not saying you should never attend a BBQ, go camping or use the broiler. However, these cooking methods should be used sparingly and not for every meal. Enjoy them occasionally and vary your cooking methods for optimal health and flavour.
Use Acidity in Cooking
Evidence indicates that acidity prevents the formation of AGEs, particularly in animal products. Try adding lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to a dressing or marinade when cooking both animal and plant-based ingredients.
Avoid Refined Sugars
We already know that refined sugars can lead to inflammation, obesity, cancer, tooth decay, hormone disruption and diabetes and now you can add one more reason to avoid them to your list. Dietary intake of refined sugars is both an exogenous (outside) source of AGEs and also encourages endogenous (inside) production of advanced glycation end products in our bodies. Instead of refined sugars, try dates, raw honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar for sweetness.
Choose Nutritious Cooking Oils
The fats in many cooking oils are very susceptible to heat, light and air and can oxidize quickly, especially when heated at the high temperatures used for deep frying or barbecuing. Continually reheating the same oil can lead to AGE formation, which is something to keep in mind if eating at restaurants as they can use the same cooking oil for days or even weeks on end. Instead, learn how to choose nutritious oils for cooking and eating.
While there are certainly many reasons other than AGEs to avoid cigarettes, smoking provokes AGE formation and smokers have higher levels of AGEs than non-smokers.
Advanced glycation end products are simple to avoid using the cooking methods I’ve recommended above, along with the consumption of nutrient-dense foods. Choosing gentler ways to cook your food is the first line of defense against AGEs and you’ll end up with a meal that is just as delicious!