Commentary: Seared vs. sautéed

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We’ve all seen the famous series of drawings showing the evolution of man, from a knuckle-dragging ape to Homo erectus to our immediate Neanderthal-type ancestors to modern-day humans.

Likewise, we could create a series showing the evolution of meat cooking, starting from raw meat to fire-charred hunks to slated slabs of beef and pork to boiled and stewed meats to roasting of whole-muscle cuts to today’s trimmed, portioned, seasoned and grilled cuts of meat and poultry.

That evolution is supposed to mirror the development of humanity—that is, movement in a progressive direction. However, there is a problem: Research has suggested that high-temperature grilling—which sears the meat and seals in flavor and juiciness and contributes mightily to the sensory qualities of the meat—may cause ingestion of benzopyrenes, potential carcinogens formed when fats drip onto hot coals.

The risk is speculative, of course, rather than definitive, and the amounts of animal protein you’d have to consume to redline your health status would be positively Herculean.

Blocking the formation of fat

Now, however, there is yet another cautionary study regarding the health impact of grilled meats. According to a story in the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier’s online news site, Kee-Hong Kim, an assistant professor of food science at Purdue University, is researching the reaction between sugars and protein during searing or frying of meat. His concern is that such a cooking method creates what are known as glycated proteins, which can influence the process by which new fat cells are created in the body.

In the wrong direction.

“Glycated proteins are formed both in the body and during food processing.” Kim said. “In the body, these proteins are generated by the reaction between sugars and free amino group of proteins, lipids and nucleic acids during the course of aging. This is dramatically enhanced under disease conditions, such as diabetes mellitus.”

Obviously, that’s not good, and in fact, additional fat cells would not only contribute to the weight gain and obesity problems already associated with the aging process but they could also initiate inflammatory responses and even aggravate chronic diseases.

As Kim explained it, the byproducts of glycated proteins get in the way of a process that blocks immature fat cells from growing in older animals, or people. The increased fat, he said, could trigger the onset of certain types of diseases.

Here are a couple disclaimers to consider, however, before anybody drags their barbecue grill out to the curb for recycling.

First of all, no acute toxicity of glycated proteins has been reported in humans; Kim’s research was conducted as with long-term feeding studies done on animals. Although he stated that his study was “the first report that high levels of glycated proteins could accelerate the cellular conversion process of ‘old’ precursor fat cells to new fat cells,” he now plans to expand his research to focus on human physiology.

That’s a pretty important “evolution” with this kind of research. Although the implications of his animal studies—if they ultimately apply to people—is that a high intake of glycated proteins could contribute to increased body fat and weight gain in older people, there’s a long way between rats in a cage and complex lifestyles.

Diet is certainly a factor in chronic disease development, but so are activity levels, exercise frequency and intensity, stress management, and even spiritual and emotional connections. And while most of the research involving the etiology of chronic disease acknowledges its multi-factorial nature, what’s often overlooked is the reality that as a species, Homo Modernus are living far longer than at any point in our evolutionary history.

Which means that cancer, cardiac disease and other degenerative illnesses are going to occur more frequently as a statistical certainty, no matter what we eat or how spartan we manage to make our lifestyles.

For every improvement we create in terms of longevity, there’s always a downside.

I don’t want to cave in and say the heck with it—throw another couple steaks on the grill—but that comes awfully close to the conclusion I draw from the good professor’s research.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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