Nutrition is an aspect of our life that contains many choices: what do I want to eat, where do I buy food, what products do I buy, how do I choose it?
Although this aspect is often underestimated, the cooking of food, the method of preparation or conservation affects its nutritional properties. What we expect in terms of nutrition, could be nullified by a simple error of assessment accentuated perhaps by distraction or lack of time.
Importance of cooking
Cooking was created to make foods easier to eat and digest. Think of a caveman grappling with a piece of meat from some animal just killed: it was certainly not a tartare, cooking with fire must have made a big difference for his ease of hiring.
At the time, however, they only had a live fire, as civilization has developed, we have invented many new ways to treat food, up to the present day with a series of well-distinct methods by food category, efficacy and usefulness for the health.
At a medical-health level, not only cooking counts but also the preservation that precedes cooking.
Depending on the cooking method, a series of physical and chemical transformations can take place which includes denaturation of proteins, dispersion or concentration of nutrients.
A very important reaction not only for those involved in chemistry but also in the kitchen is the Maillard reaction, discovered by the French chemist Louis Camille Maillard in 1912.
Maillard studied the browning of foods subjected to heat, wondering why they assumed the typical brown aspect, the flavour and aroma of “cooked” and observed that the responsible components were sugars and proteins that bonded to each other at temperatures between 140 ° C and 180 ° C.
It is responsible, for example, for the formation of the bread crust, the browning of fried foods, the colour of roasted coffee and cocoa, the colour of beer and the much-loved steak crust.
The problem is that the Maillard reaction is responsible for many other potentially harmful compounds including acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, furan, 3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol (3-MCPD) and each of these compounds represents for your body a danger already at low concentrations.
Also, high temperatures tend to degrade the foods you cook, especially fats: they also tend to form compounds that are harmful to our digestion.
It is immediately clear that the best thing would be to always work at cooking temperatures closer to 140 ° C instead of 180 ° C, in fact trying to keep as low as possible.
If you eat processed and cooked (packaged or self-produced) food every day from breakfast and so on for all other meals, you can understand how many and what are the occasions when you risk introducing excessive doses of these harmful substances.
Some characteristics of cooking methods
There are many cooking methods and technology continues to develop to make it possible for us to increase efficiency, both in the use of energy resources and in the preservation of the precious nutrients present in food.
Some are at the forefront, such as the thermostabilization used for the Bonus Foods of European astronauts, but also limiting ourselves to what can be used in our kitchens we have a wide choice, even if each method can present pros and cons, let’s see which ones.
Boiling in water
It allows not to add fats, but on the other hand disperses micronutrients, especially water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C and B vitamins, which dissolve in the water together with mineral salts.
The ideal would be to use a little water, or to reuse the cooking water where possible, for broths in the case of vegetables or to cook vegetables if you have cooked cereals or legumes in water (the previous soaking water should instead be thrown away because contains anti-nutrients).
Ideal for grain cereals such as rice, millet, quinoa, spelt, amaranth, couscous, it allows you to waste less water and less energy because the final absorption can take place without using the stove.
Cooking in a pan
It lends itself very well for quick and palatable preparations, but care must be taken to use stone or non-stick pans, with a thick bottom so as not to raise the temperature too much and think carefully if it is appropriate to add fats that would be degraded quickly.
A separate discussion for frying, a type of cooking to be limited: better extra virgin olive oil ( even if the economic expense may not be indifferent ) or peanut oil.
It can take place in a little liquid such as water, but also lemon or wine: it cooks at lower temperatures and in a sweeter way, and can also be used to flavour foods differently.
Even if it makes the recipes palatable, it is another case in which high or very high temperatures are reached: the classic indication in the recipes is in fact “bake 30 minutes at 180 ° C”, not the maximum (and often more temperatures are recommended high).
But with longer cooking over time, even lower temperatures can be used.
It keeps nutrients intact and does not require additions of any other ingredient or fat: an idea is to use multiple layers to cook many things at the same time so that the foods cooked in the upper levels acquire the aromas of that underneath.
Remove from your head the perception that it is a “sad” type of cooking because steamed foods are suitable for many recipes.
Cooking in the microwave
Use the water present in food, heating it and cooking the food.
Many people are reluctant to use the microwave for anything other than simply heating previously cooked food: if you want to try it, the advice is to prefer cooking vegetables or cereals.
It is very difficult to verify which temperature the instrument reaches, it may not be sufficient to eliminate the microbiological risk in products such as fish or meat, in addition to the fact that cooking may not be uniform due to the different distribution of water in the food.
Vacuum food storage
It requires the use of other tools such as bags or vacuum jars but retains all nutrients, flavours or condiments in the bag.
Cooking with the pressure cooker
It significantly reduces cooking times and uses pressure instead of lower temperatures.
The “cons” is the greater attention that must be paid to controlling the degree of cooking of food, but the time savings for long preparations such as soups and legumes is evident.
By low temperature I mean between 50 and 65 ° C: it is ideal for maintaining micronutrients and the flavour of the preparations. It can be performed with a specific machine that constantly signals the temperature or even in ovens that keep the cooking temperature constant.
Marinating and smoking
It consists in the immersion of cooked or raw food cut into thin slices, for a variable time, in a liquid typically composed of acids (vinegar, lemon juice, wine, beer), oil and aromas such as spices and herbs.
In the case of meat, the muscle fibres soften and become more digestible.
Pay attention to smoking: it is not a type of cooking the food remains raw.
Healthy cooking methods: what are the principles and tools to use
To avoid having all the negative reactions derived from cooking there are some tips that you can try to follow:
- pay attention to the cooking temperatures: an idea may be to have a kitchen thermometer to always keep under control the heat source you are using;
- it limits the use of packaged foods of which you do not know the production techniques: industrial processes almost certainly take place at high or very high temperatures;
- more often consume raw or processed foods below 40 ° C, especially vegetables and fruit;
- uses non-stick pans and limits the use of cooking seasoning fats, preferring raw extra virgin olive oil;
- uses often classic or stone pans with a bottom, which distributes the heat as much as possible on the surface;
- the cooking methods you use for your kitchen preparations vary: I described some of them in the previous chapter, which ones have you used so far?
Cooking techniques affect your health
If you are among those people who are forced to eat often in restaurants or public places for work reasons, be careful even in those moments when you are away from home and try to understand how food is processed.
In fact, at your home, you can work on your education for correct domestic cooking, but very often it is difficult to know what happens in the kitchens of public catering and above all, it is not known at what level the awareness and attention is on these issues.
The cooking method is just one of the valuable factors to take into consideration to protect your health.
Have you tried all the cooking methods described in this article or is there something you haven’t tried yet?
If you want to further increase your food awareness, I can suggest you take a look at my “Potential Nutrition” course, which will give you access to numerous other tools to work on improving your health.