Isn't cooking interesting? With a few basic pieces of equipment, a stove and some pots and pans, you can radically transform your food, play with it, and turn it into something totally different. Think about the difference between a raw potato and a potato after it's been baked. What a metamorphosis! What used to be this crunchy, juicy, earthy thing is now creamy, sweet and mealy, and it melts in your mouth. It fills you up like nothing else, and all of this you couldn't have achieved without this little magical feat you operated using your stove (just assuming that some of you still use stove, but I'm sure you are beyond that, aren't you?).
So you went on and cooked your food, added a pinch of this and a pinch of that in the pots and pans, fried a few things, boiled some others, and operated all of these miracles that transformed these rude material into some actual cuisine. Who in fact would even bother to eat a raw apple when you can bake it with cinnamon, brown sugar, and make it a real treat?
But the question we ask now is: What really goes on, behind the scenes, when we cook our foods? What is it that happens at the molecular level that turns this raw potato into the food we know as baked potato? What is it that can make us go past our repulsion for raw meat and eat with delight a grilled steak?
Thusly we can bring up the theme of this article: science and the art of cooking, with (unfortunately) its implication on human health.
Cooking has always been considered an art, where every possible way to transform the foods has been permitted, as long as it succeeded in creating some eatables that are pleasing to the palate.
This so-called art had the benefit of being able to use the rich natural world to operate its marvels. It is possible, using the molecules contained in foods, and transforming them using fire, to create countless new molecules that were not present before in these foods. These new molecules are the true offsprings of cooking, and their implication on human health is quite scary.
Science is just starting to analyze these new creations of the cooking art, and can't even seem to see the end considering their gigantic number.
I am not talking here about the composition of foods, to which I show no interest in this articles. There are plenty of books already out there discussing the composition of cooked foods, in terms of fats, protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. The real question I am bringing up is : how the diverse methods of the cooking art operate at the molecular level to transform foods in their raw state?
Cooking & Science
Chefs rarely are men and women of science, and it might even scare them to think of their art as cold science. But science is amazing in the way that its laws only ask to admit that our universe is composed of molecules, which are in themselves composed of atoms. Life is constituted of cells, which are constituted of molecules. We know this since college. We also know that atoms are linked together by chemical reactions more or less strong according to their type: between the atoms of a same molecule, the forces are generally strong, but between two different neighboring molecules, the forces of attraction are not as strong.
Often, when we heat something, we break only the forces playing against the neighboring molecules; water into ice, for example, is a stalking of water molecules. When we heat ice, the energy that we bring suffices to break the links between the water molecules, and thus create a liquid where the molecules, although forming a coherent mass, are moving from one another. However, in the liquid formed, the molecules are not transformed. The molecules of water are identical to the molecules of ice. Then when we heat water over 212 degrees (100 Celsius), it evaporates, because the heat that has been brought is enough to break the forces of cohesion between the water molecules. But again, within each molecule, the atom of oxygen is still linked to two atoms of hydrogen. This type of transformation is physical in its nature, and not chemical: the water molecule stays a water molecule.
But what the average chef doesn't know is that, during the cooking process, chemical reactions occur -- molecules in foods are being disassociated, rearranged, and new molecules are being created.
Which brings up to the following question:
What exactly are these molecules created through cooking, and what do they do to our health when they enter our bodies?
The Maillard Molecules
I am not the first person to ask this question.
"In 1916, an American, chemical engineer, by the name of Maillard, decided to isolate substances that give cooked foods their distinctive flavors, such as the tastes of bread, chocolate, coffee, etc. After having singled them out, he hoped, no doubt, to produce them artificially in order to add them to industrial foods and enhance the appeal that they could have to the consumer's taste buds. So in order to complete his scheme, he had to determine the exact structure of these new molecules. He quickly found out that these molecules resulted from very complex, haphazard chemical reactions between sugars and proteins, and one could produce them quite easily by heating any food even to moderate temperatures.
"It is not possible to see with the naked eye what happens in a saucepan on the molecular level. When a chemist combines two substances in a test tube and subsequently heats the compound over a Bunsen burner, it boils, clouds, changes color or explodes accordingly. In each case, a new compound has been produced. Heat causes the molecules involved to collide, and repeated collision causes divalent bonding in order for new molecules, and hence a new substance, to form. The same goes for cooking, except that myriad molecules are brought together instead of just two.
"In an ordinary baked potato, there are already 450 by-products of every description. They have even been named 'new chemical composites.' So far, around 50 such substances were studied and turned out to be either peroxidizing, antioxidizing, or toxic and possibly even mutagenic, meaning that they are liable to wreck cell nuclei and set up cancer. What was ascertained for broiled potatoes, which involves a fairly straightforward preparation, becomes much more serious with more sophisticated cookery. Sliced potatoes baked with cheese is a case in point. Heating releases an awesome array of chemical reactions -- 450 substances in potatoes and probably many more in cheese which is a highly intricate biochemical complex. Not only will those unwanted molecules stack up their effects, but, moreover, they will combine among themselves in every possible way -- meaning that tens of thousands of abnormal substances will spring out of a cooked dish calling for mere potatoes and cheese. Just think of elaborate recipes where one clocks up endless chains of sundry ingredients jumbled together helter-skelter." -- Guy Claude Burger, Manger Vrai.
Maillard Molecules & Health Hazards
It seems that shortly after Maillard discovered these molecules, that have since been termed "Maillard's molecules," he tried to prove that they had no adverse effect on human health. Some experiments quickly showed that he was wrong, and all his work was swept under the rug, until 1982, when some research appeared in scientific journals. Scientists now begin to foresee the possible connection between the introduction of these molecules in the human bodies and common diseases and health problems.
"As far back as 1916, Maillard proved that the brown pigments and polymers
that occur in pyrolysis (chemical breakdown by heat alone)... are yielded after
prior reaction of an amino acid group with the carbonyl group of sugars.
Though apparently simple, this reaction is, in fact, highly complex, itinerating in a spate of successive reactions and forming melanoidins, which are brown pigments that impart a typical color to whatever part of a food has endured higher temperatures.
The number of substances generated as a result is most impressive, yielding endless chains of new molecules: ketones, esters, aldehydes, ethers, volatile alcohols, and non-volatile heterocycles, etc. These innumerable substances coalesce into a complex compound and are endowed with differing biological and chemical attributes: they are toxic, aromatic, peroxidizing, anti-oxidizing, and possibly mutagenic and carcinogenic (DNA fractures can be oncogenic), or even anti-mutagenic and anti-carcinogenic. This to say that heating causes widespread disruption in the natural order of molecules. The research work backing up this article evidenced over 50 pyrolytic substances in broiled potatoes, most of which originated from pyroseines and thiazole. However, Derache also has it that "there remain, all in all, some 400 by-products to identify." -- Manger Vrai
The Malliard reactions are one type of possible reaction occurring during common food preparation, but not the only one. Cooked foods are the product of chemical reactions, and most transformations operated by the culinary art are chemical in their nature. When meat darken on the surface when cooked, it's the result of a chemical reaction; when brown rice soften when boiled, it's again another chemical reaction. Unlike water, the molecules in food are extremely complex and fragile, leaving place for a huge amount of new chemistry in the cooking pan
More than just one reaction, it's a mass of innumerable complex reactions, that we simplify using the classifications of biochemists: carbohydrates, fats, protein, water, minerals.
"The products of the Maillard reaction are innumerable and still mostly unknown. In 1990, a famous chemistry magazine dedicated a 20 page article on the Maillard reaction, describing number of flavors created in the procedure. The brown color that chefs try to option while sautéing foods in oil is a color created through the Maillard reaction: at the high temperatures reached by the fat, the reaction occurs, while it doesn't happen as much when we boil foods, temperature being then limited to the temperature of boiling water: 212 degrees. Quantity of researchers study these molecules which could be at the basis of a number of diseases." From the book: The secrets of the cooking pan.
Are we adapted?
There are a lot of reasons to believe that new molecules created during the processes of cooking enter the blood stream without being properly digested, since there are no enzymes adapted to their digestion. These molecules would then accumulate in all part of the body to create number of diseases.
Since the raw-food and natural health movement has been in existence, authors in the subjects have often talked about detoxification, without really explaining the nature of the toxins coming out of the body. They always knew that under a cooked food diet the individual accumulates in his body all sort of unwanted materials. The whole idea of all the methods of body purification, such as fasting, enemas, colonic irrigation, herbal cleanses, etc, is to remove these "obstructions."
Long term raw eaters know that foods and medicines taken a long time ago eventually find their way out after a long time on a raw-food diet. A lot of our friends have experienced the taste of medicines, candies, and other familiar cooked food, during their detoxification period, and for no apparent reasons. Molecules from denatures foods seem to get trapped inside the body, just waiting to be removed later through the proper detoxification pathways, when the body has the energy to do so.
It is quite safe to assume that there are no reasons for the body to be adapted to the new molecules created in the process of cooking, due to their huge amount and complexity, and the fact that they have entered human bodies only in the past 10,000 years of human history.
"The Maillard reaction works simultaneously upon thousands of compounds;
combinations are innumerable, and products thus formed also are. We create molecules
to which no one knows exactly their effect on human health. Certain molecules,
in minimal concentration, could be at the origin of many serious health problems."
The Secrets of the Cooking Pan.
These molecules accumulate in all parts of the body, creating obstructions that would lead to diseases, and, according to some research, contribute to the processes of aging.
Nobody really knows what goes on in the cooking pan. We have been doing it for so many years, without really stopping to ask ourselves the question. All the scientific research done on the subject seem to prove that the compounds created during the processes of cooking are extremely complex, numerous, and possibly dangerous.
When we put some food in a stove or a over a frying pan, it may seem for some of us like a very natural process. After all, everyone seems to be doing it, and no one really stopped to ask some serious questions about the rightness of it. But it now seems time for all of us to stop and ask ourselves the question: "Is it really possible to keep eating cooked food and get away with it?"
* Les secrets de la casserole -- Hervé THIS, Belin, 1993, ISBN 2-7011-1585-X, 222 p.
* "Pyrolysis and risks of toxicity" by Professor R. Derache, in "Cahiers de nutrition et de diététique" (Diet and Nutrition Journal), 1982, p 39.
* Manger Vrai, Guy-Claude Burger, Editions du Rocher, 1990, 462 pages