Just when you think you know what's making you old--pollution, free radicals, UVB rays--the brainiacs in white coats come up with a new cause for sudden memory lapses and wrinkles. This time, though, the culprit is something you can control. Researchers have found that some of the most common cooking methods--grilling, frying, and microwaving--and the way we process some of our favorite foods (lunch meats, hotdogs, potato chips) react with sugars and fats in those edibles to create destructive compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These molecular pests can shift our aging process into fifth gear. "If you have high amounts of AGEs in your body--no matter how young you are--you're on your way to developing chronic diseases you normally wouldn't see until you are much older," says Helen Vlassara, M.D., a professor of medicine and geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City who specializes in AGE research.
But here's the upside: Cut your AGE consumption by half and you'll give Father Time the finger (and be less tempted to use Botox). "When you cut back your AGE consumption, you'll save your eyesight, your memory, your skin, and your blood vessels," Vlassara says.
Too Hot to Handle
AGEs might not have made the headlines until recently, but they've been around ever since Neanderthals discovered fire and hosted their first caveside rave and boar roast. AGEs form when dry, high heat causes sugar and fat to break down into protein molecules that shrivel up and turn brown or black. Any time you see sear marks on steak, a crispy coating on fried chicken, or a golden crust on bread, you're looking at AGEs, says Guy A. Crosby, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and food science at Framingham (Massachusetts) State College and adjunct associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Once they've gone down your gullet, AGEs live up to their nickname by attacking the cells that keep you young and healthy. First, in a desperate move to save themselves, these defective proteins bind to immune cells, causing them to become inflamed--and inflammation is a primary cause of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and heart disease. Making matters worse, AGEs also cause the formation of equally unstable free radicals, the destructive molecules that travel through your body damaging cells. This can lead to other serious health problems, such as cancer, and trigger signs of aging such as crow's feet and those "Where the hell did I put my keys?" moments.
Put simply: If AGEs were a SWAT team, they wouldn't exactly be the gang from The Unit. They spray a barrage of bullets, hitting innocent cells in their path.
It wouldn't be such a big deal if we had only a few AGEs in our systems--our body has had a million years to learn to deal with them. But over the past 50 years, we've upped our AGE intake dramatically, as we've moved away from eating farm-fresh food and toward consuming more processed products loaded with fats and added sugars and then cooked at high heat. In other words, AGE grenades.
"Many prepared foods are exposed to high temperatures to lengthen shelf life, so we're getting more AGEs than before," Vlassara says. And food manufacturers aren't the only problem: Combine those foods with the way we cook them--grilling, broiling, and microwaving, all involving dry, high, AGE-generating heat--and we're getting way more AGEs than our bodies can handle, Vlassara says.
To find out what happens when you cut back on AGEs, Vlassara and her colleagues served one group of mice meals high in AGEs and another group food with half the amount. The low-AGE group lived 20 weeks longer than their less fortunate rodent friends. What do 20 additional mouse weeks translate to in human time? Roughly 12 years.
Now, before you go raw and donate your cherished outdoor grill and microwave to charity, know that you can still cook your food and cut back dramatically on AGEs. That's because AGEs have an arch nemesis: water.
Using cooking methods that involve lots of H2O slows the AGE-creation process because the liquid offsets the heat. So the more you cook with water, the more you stop AGEs. Three easy ways to do it: steaming, braising, and blanching.
Don't worry--blanching only sounds bland. By adding herbs and spices (whose antioxidants have their own anti-aging powers), your food will explode with flavor, not age-accelerating byproducts, says Michael Adams, chef/owner of The Farmhouse, a restaurant in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and winner of the Best Pennsylvania Preferred Chef contest. Adams' tips for whipping up appetizing meals and minimizing AGEs:
Spa treatment Planning to make veggies, chicken, fish, or pork for dinner? Adams recommends treating them to a tasty herbal steam bath. First, add one tablespoon of four to five herbs and spices to one quart of water. Cover and boil for seven to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to a low simmer and add chicken, pork, or fish. Cook the meat for about five minutes per pound. For veggies, place them in a steamer basket over the boiling herbal mixture for three minutes. Here are Adams' favorite blends for each type of food:
Chicken, fish, or vegetables garlic (smashed), ginger, lemongrass, scallions
Root vegetables (beets, carrots, potatoes, turnips) bay leaf, cloves, fennel, garlic, peppercorn, saffron
Fish bay leaf, mustard seed, peppercorn, tarragon
Simply Smashing Braising is an easy technique that's perfect for beef and pork (large cuts such as roasts are the most commonly braised, but smaller cuts, such as chops and steaks, can be cooked this way as well): Pour a can of beef or chicken stock into a roasting pan, then add four smashed cloves of garlic, one bay leaf, a tablespoon of fennel seeds, a tablespoon of fresh thyme, and half a tablespoon of peppercorns. Place a three- to five-pound piece of beef or pork into the broth, leaving a quarter of the meat exposed. Cover and bake at 275Ã‚Â°F to 300Ã‚Â°F for two and a half to three hours.
Double Dip It sounds like water torture for produce, but blanching, a process that involves quickly transferring veggies from boiling-hot to icy-cold water, makes for super-crisp, fresh-tasting sides. Try it on non-watery vegetables like asparagus, green beans, potatoes, snow peas, butternut squash, and summer squash. First add a tablespoon of four to five different herbs and spices to a quart of water and bring it to a boil. Drop the vegetables into the boiling water (one to two minutes for greens, two to three minutes for most other chopped veggies, and until tender for root veggies), then immediately remove and place in ice water for the same time they were in hot water, adding more ice as it melts. Take out of ice water and serve.
Damage control - AGE-defying tips
It'd be depressingly dull to cook using only water-based methods, and God knows most of us crave a juicy, grilled steak from time to time. But even when you do use high, dry heat, you can slash AGEs easily, Vlassara says. Try these AGE-reducing tricks when grilling, broiling, or microwaving:
Cut the fat Since AGEs form when fat heats up, the less fat in a food, the fewer AGEs you'll get when you cook it. Vegetables are an obvious choice, of course. And when choosing proteins, go for fish or skinless chicken; or get adventurous and hunt down game meats like bison or venison, which are leaner than beef, says Dave Joachim, author of Mastering the Grill. When only beef will do, select lean cuts such as top loin sirloin, top round, eye of round, tip, and flank.
Take a soak Marinate meat and fish in a mixture made from lemons, limes, pineapple, and other citrus fruit. Not only does the liquid limit the production of AGEs, but the acid in citrus fruit kills them too. Forget commercial marinadesÃ¢â‚¬”most contain high-fructose corn syrup, an AGE building block. Instead, whip together one teaspoon of lemon zest, two tablespoons of cilantro, and two cloves of garlic in four tablespoons of olive oil; pour over chicken or beef. Let it marinate for at least an hour, Adams says.
Go undercover Create tents with foil before grilling or broiling. And cover microwave dishes with plastic wrap. Both seal in the moisture that stops toxic AGEs in their tracks.
Fake it Braise chicken or beef, then grill or pan-fry it for two minutes, Adams says. You'll get the look and taste you want without the AGEs.