When it comes to cooking at home, most health-conscious folks would probably say that their aim is to prepare wholesome, savory meals in the cleanest way possible for their families. However, unless these foods are cooked properly at the right temperatures and for the appropriate lengths of time, they could still be harmful to your health even if they are organic.
In addition to the more obvious precautions such as choosing only chemical-free produce and pasture-raised meats and cooking with only healthy saturated fats at higher heat, home cooks also need to pay attention to the ways in which they cook these foods. Certain foods — carbohydrates in particular — can release toxins when they are cooked at too high of a temperature or for too long.
When cooked improperly, potatoes are one such food that can generate a poisonous substance known as acrylamide that animal studies have shown can cause cancer. This white, odorless, water-soluble chemical is generated when starchy foods are cooked at temperatures higher than 250 degrees Fahrenheit or 121 degrees Celsius. Potatoes (including sweet potatoes), grains, and even coffee all generate acrylamide during cooking and/or roasting.
Temperature is not the only thing that matters; cooking time is also an important consideration. For example, when potatoes are cooked above the aforementioned temperature threshold, they continue to progressively produce more acrylamide the longer they are cooked. For this reason, it is important for home cooks to pay attention to both temperature and cooking duration when preparing food for their families at home.
Why is acrylamide so bad for your health? Here’s what The Healthy Home Economist‘s Sarah Pope has to say on the matter, referencing published science:
“Rats and mice fed high levels of [acrylamide] in their drinking water were found by researchers to be at increased risk for several types of cancer. In people, studies on acrylamide in the diet have produced mixed results for some types of cancer including kidney, endometrial, and ovarian. Exposure to high levels of acrylamide in the workplace via inhalation or the skin has been shown to cause nerve damage, which can lead to numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, bladder problems, in addition to other symptoms.”
Take these steps to minimize acrylamide formation when cooking at home
Acrylamide is clearly something we all want to avoid, but what is the best way to accomplish this? The first and most obvious way is to cook starchy foods at 250 degrees F or less whenever possible, paying close attention to the color of foods as they cook. Try to keep browning — and charring in particular — to a minimum. You should aim for a light, golden brown color.
Another easy way to minimize acrylamide formation in carbohydrate foods is to blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes prior to frying, baking, or broiling. You can soakpotatoes in cold water for 15 to 30 minutes prior to cooking; make sure to drain the water and blot them dry before exposing them to hot oils and fats so they don’t splash and cause burns or fires.
Even when you use healthy oils like coconut and palm or healthy fats like lard and ghee, acrylamide will continue to form the longer a food is cooked. Therefore, you should keep cooking time to a minimum, allowing for just enough heat exposure to produce the desired end product. When cooking is complete, dry the cooked foods in a hot air oven for a few minutes to decrease acrylamide content.
Don’t store potatoes in your refrigerator, and never eat sprouted potatoes
Normally when we think of sprouted foods, the implication is that they’re always healthier and more nutritious than their non-sprouted counterparts. In the case of potatoes, however, the exact opposite is true. When potatoes sprout, they produce a toxic substance known as solanine that has been shown to trigger gastrointestinal and neurological problems when ingested.
To avoid this, always store your potatoes in a dark, cool place where they are not exposed to the light. It is also important to avoid storing potatoes in your refrigeratorbecause this actually increases the amount of acrylamide produced when those potatoes are later cooked.
High-heat cooking can also produce other dangerous and potentially carcinogenic compounds, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as well as advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Like acrylamide, these substances result from the chemical reactions of various creatines and amino acids that are produced during the cooking process.
Both HCAs and PAHs are recognized cancer-causing agents and are likely the very reason that meats, for example, have been vilified in recent years as potentially causing cancer. It isn’t necessarily the meats themselves that are causing cancer, but rather the way these meats are procured and served — at high heat and often charred.
“Opt for slower, indirect-heat methods of cooking such as poaching, stewing, braising, or steaming,” the group Precision Nutrition suggests. They also recommend that home cooks:
• Cook foods at lower temperatures
• Avoid charring or burning foods
• Avoid cooking any processed foods, which tend to contain high levels of damaging AGEs
• Use liquid in cooking (such as with braising)
• Use acids like lemon juice or vinegar in marinades, which help decrease the formation of toxins like AGEs