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Cooking with Confidence

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Cooking always involves compromise. The high temperatures used in the process destroy enzymes and vitamins. Cooking also prompts chemical changes in food that produce harmful substances.

Cooking always involves compromise. The high temperatures used in the process destroy enzymes and vitamins. Cooking also prompts chemical changes in food that produce harmful substances. Heterocyclic amines, for instance, are cancer-causing chemicals created in meat from the reaction of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and creatine (a chemical present in muscles) at high cooking temperatures.

Swedish researchers recently discovered another carcinogenic chemical, acrylamide, in cooked food - notably in starchy foods cooked, fried, or baked at very high temperatures; such as French fries, potato chips, bread, rice, and processed cereals.

At alive, we have always stressed the importance of raw foods, which hold the greatest nutritional potential and should be included in the diet every day. But cooked foods are an undeniable part of our culinary tradition and heritage. They may also have certain nutritional advantages of their own. The anticarcinogenic carotenoid lycopene found in tomatoes, for instance, becomes more bioavailable when heated in cooking or for canning. No one can deny the healing effect that a warm cup of broth or bowl of soup brings to a chilled or tired body.

The key to healthful cooking, then, is to use methods that minimize nutrient loss and maintain the natural state of each food as much as possible.

Parchment Perfection

Cooking in parchment paper is a technique borrowed from French haute cuisine (the French call it en papillote - "in curl paper”), which permits the cooking of foods while retaining juices. Wash and chop foods and place on a dampened sheet of parchment. Fold the corners of the paper around the food and tie together with a cotton string. Insert the pouch into a pot filled with about five centimetres of gently boiling water, cover, and simmer at low-to-medium temperature.

This method is suitable for cooking all types of vegetables, as well as fish and fowl. It traps steam, causing food to cook in its own juices, intensifying flavour and retaining moisture and nutrients. Foods cooked in parchment require very little seasoning. After cooking, the juice that collects in the pouch should not be discarded, as it is in this liquid that many of the nutrients are dissolved. Serve the juice with the meal, or drink it separately as a nutritious vitamin and mineral cocktail.

Getting Steamed Up

Steaming is a popular and quick method for cooking vegetables. For best results, bring the steaming water to a boil, place chopped veggies in the steamer, and close the lid tightly to limit air exposure. Reduce the temperature to low. Do not oversteam; remove vegetables when they turn a bright colour and are tender but still crisp. Preserve the steaming water, in which nutrients are dissolved, for use in stews, soups, or sauces; it may be frozen if not used immediately.

Great Grains

Grains, dried beans, peas, and lentils are rich sources of nutrients, but they are difficult to digest unless properly prepared, as they contain enzyme inhibitors that keep them from germinating under dry conditions. These same enzyme inhibitors also make them indigestible unless they are sprouted, sour-leavened, or soaked and cooked. All legumes and whole grains should be soaked in tepid water for several hours to remove enzyme inhibitors. Discard the soaking water and boil in appropriate amounts of fresh water, which is absorbed during cooking.

Top Pots

Ensure that your pots and pans are made from high-quality materials that do not allow toxic chemicals to leach into the foods during cooking. Avoid cookware made from aluminum, which tends to oxidize and combine with the foods cooked in it, particularly if the foods, such as tomatoes, release certain acids during cooking. Beware of nonstick pots and pans, since they scratch easily, allowing the coating chemicals to seep into the food. Stainless steel, lead-free glass, and enamelware are safer choices.

Avoid using a microwave oven, as microwave heating damages the molecular structure of food and has been shown to cause pathological changes in the human body (see alive No. 249, July 2003).

No-Fry Zone

Use only those fats in cooking that remain stable at temperatures above the boiling point. These are butter, olive oil, macadamia nut oil, and unrefined palm and coconut oil. Avoid heating polyunsaturated vegetable oils, including safflower, sunflower, and flax seed oils, as they break down quickly when exposed to air and light, causing harmful substances, such as trans fatty acids, to develop.

Never fry or deep-fry food. The gentler methods help to prepare hot meals that taste great, digest well, and support health.

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