Curious Cook: A fat lot of good – Part 1

  • Living
  • Sunday, 24 Apr 2016

The problem is that most of us seriously enjoy eating food loaded with AGEs – for these are the aromatic compounds that give that special delicious flavour to grilled, fried or roasted meats and baked goods. Photo: The Star

The idea for this article started when an oversized lady bumped into me in the supermarket while desperately reaching for the last pot of low-fat cottage cheese on sale.

Startled by the unexpected rudeness (wholly un-intentioned, I’m sure), the incident started a long chain of thought about fats on the slow walk home – and the result is this somewhat intricate discourse into the curious world of fat, its consumption and the consequences.

It is hoped you will find it at least a little informative – and perhaps it might even change some long-standing perceptions.

A world of manufactured lies and half truths

For a long time, it bemused me that people wanting to eat healthy food choose some low-fat or fat-free product to consume over a food option made with natural ingredients.

What do they think they are getting with a “low-fat” or “fat-free” alternative? The not too palatable answer is they are probably ingesting some heavily processed concoction made from a cocktail of chemicals – and with indeterminate side effects on health.

So perhaps “low-fat” is not exactly wholesome – but if enough people (and marketing departments) say it is healthy, sooner or later public opinion will change and then suddenly these chemical concoctions get perceived as “healthy”.

For anyone who believes in good statistics and facts, public opinion can often be an intellectual and illogical nightmare. But the public is not to blame for its opinions – in modern times, it seems that around 85% of what we see, hear or read about scientific food or health research is directly or indirectly sponsored.

This is compared to much less than 20% a hundred years ago – and to be fair, there were proportionately a lot more investigative journalists then and access to news was seldom free and rather limited.

Some really disturbing trends

There are now millions of people in the media business busily creating “content” rather than doing proper science journalism or fact reporting – and why bother with hard investigative work when it’s easier to pick up and re-write newsflashes from drug companies about new “weight loss” pills, or another “cure for cancer” or whatever item the marketing departments want to push that day.

Evidence of this is the propagation of the same story (perhaps written only as the viewpoint of one researcher or editor) on hundreds of internet news sites – often blindly boosted by social media.

Such rampant repetition of any narrative would tend to confer some sort of undeserved credibility to the premise behind any story, especially in the eyes of the uninquisitive public.

So quite often, whole sections of public opinion today are based on sketchy or even incorrect information.

Facts and logic are, to some extent, almost becoming irrelevant – note the current blight of religious militancy globally and the backlash against intellectual thinking in the Donald Trump 2016 campaign for the US Presidency.

It might seem that millions of people are actually proud of being irrational and ignorant – and this is something you should find really disturbing.

In general, people also have a habit of disliking facts when facts are disagreeable to their lifestyles, though their reaction is often not as extreme as others. For example, corrupt politicians in power really don’t like awkward facts about their crimes to be publicised, to the extent that they even try to influence public opinion by lying, issuing fake or distracting propaganda, banning the free press, blocking access to the internet and usurping the legal system, a common tactic used by tin pot dictators such as in North Korea or some African countries.

In short, public opinion matters – and to people with vested interests, it really matters a lot.

Fat – a subject close to the heart, literally

On a more mundane level, my own family didn’t believe me when I protested for many years that eating low-cholesterol and low-fat foods doesn’t make sense. Their objections are very well-intentioned as the accepted public opinion is that it is really necessary to cut down our consumption of fats (and especially cholesterol) – and this has been drummed into us for decades.

Fat deposits causing a clog in blood vessels.
Fat deposits causing a clog in blood vessels.

The uncomplicated rationale is that cholesterol is known to be one of the main components of the plaque (known as atheroma) which plugs up the arteries – over time, this becomes a disease called arteriosclerosis which leads on to coronary heart disease (CHD) and heart attacks. The other components of atheroma are calcium, fibrin (a blood clotting agent), various fatty substances and other white blood cell-related detritus. Incidentally, CHD is the number one killer in the USA and has the same unenviable standing in pretty much the rest of the developed world.

The problem with this advice is that the human body itself produces every day far more cholesterol than we can obtain from food. Cholesterol is a vital compound needed for the proper functioning of the body – without it we would die immensely faster than from CHD.

For a start, the mobility of the blood cells in our body wouldn’t be possible without cholesterol – and we wouldn’t be able to digest fats or vitamin D either, among other things. So in my mind, eating food with cholesterol really should not be the cause of any significant health problems.

It turns out that the actual underlying cause of arteriosclerosis is arterial damage – and it is a bit of a tangled story. Cholesterol forms the bulk of the components which attend damaged arteries – and there is some debate over whether it is present there by design or by coincidence.

Regardless, if the causes of the arterial wall damage are not removed, then the persistent build-up of cholesterol (and other atheroma compounds) will cause arteriosclerosis.

Patching up damaged arteries with cholesterol is known as atherogenesis and might have been an evolutionary development – this is deduced from the fact that arteries can detect the formation of atheroma and widen themselves to some degree.

However, this offers only a temporary and limited degree of protection if the underlying causes of arterial damage are not removed as the atheroma compounds will then keep building up and eventually result in arteriosclerosis.

Cholesterol – the bad and the good

So is cholesterol bad or good? The answer is both. We need cholesterol to survive and our own bodies produce it in greater quantities than we can normally get from food.

However, the profound role of cholesterol in atheroma and arteriosclerosis means that some people desperately need to reduce the amount of cholesterol (held inside the atheroma) in their arteries. What they need even more is to reduce the amount of damage to their arteries so that the atheroma has a chance to dissipate.

Blaming cholesterol solely for the cause of arteriosclerosis is simply not correct – although once someone has arteriosclerosis, it is really sensible to take medication to reduce the cholesterol in the arteries – please do take medical advice on this if it affects you.

Causes of arterial wall damage

And what causes arterial wall damage? This is where more unpalatable facts come in, for they are mostly comments on modern lifestyles. It has been proven conclusively that the following items are significant causes of arterial wall damage:

Smoking – there is overwhelming evidence that the toxins in cigarette smoke cause cell damage not only in the lungs but also in arteries and other organs. It also decreases haemoglobin’s ability to transport oxygen in the blood, leading to the heart pumping harder – and you would doubtless already know that smoking is the leading cause of cancer in most countries

High blood pressure – this is obviously a leading cause as high blood pressure simply means more strain on the arterial walls, especially as you grow older. There are several causes of high blood pressure, such as obesity, stress, smoking, inactivity, too much dietary salt, alcohol, etc.

Sadly, it seems that there is a 90% chance of modern humans getting prehypertension at some point in life – this is a condition where blood pressure is higher than normal but not to the point of hypertension.

Glucose and diabetes – a surplus of glucose in the blood is actually toxic and eventually an excess of this monosaccharide will damage the cells in arterial walls. Too much blood glucose occur when you overeat certain carbohydrates (such as jasmine rice, potatoes, white bread, etc) and sugary foods – and problems occur if the excess blood sugar isn’t removed by insulin directing it away into skeletal muscle tissues. Insulin is produced by the pancreas to regulate blood glucose, but chronic exposure to high levels of insulin causes tolerance and eventually a form of Type 2 diabetes.

Obesity – there are pretty definite correlations between obesity and high blood pressure and also diabetes, so arterial wall damage is a highly probable consequence of obesity.

Genetics – some people are simply more prone to getting arterial wall damage and there isn’t much they can do, except perhaps take medication once the condition has been detected

Inflammation response – there is a lot to say about this subject – and I mean, a LOT. Please read on for more on this subject.

AGEs – Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs, also sometimes known as glycotoxins) are produced when food is cooked with dry heat (ie. baked, fried, roasted, grilled, etc). They are usually the result of monosaccharides (simple sugars) combining with amino acids (components making up proteins) when food is cooked in dry heat at temperatures of over 135°C – it is a process known as the Maillard Reaction.

AGEs are created via heat-induced, somewhat random chemical interactions and can end up as simple molecules or more usually, longer or highly complex chained compounds (or polymers).

Some AGEs are rabidly toxic to the body because they are so reactive – and it is critical to note that the human body is unable to easily remove AGEs once ingested. One common AGE known as glucosepane can never be removed from the human body.

AGE, RAGE and frying oil

I want to expand a little about AGEs as their role in arterial wall damage is often overlooked.

AGEs are known to cause damage to the protein structures in cells (including arterial walls) and also induce inflammation in various parts of the body – one major reason is an odd gene in the human body known as the Receptor for AGE (or RAGE).

When a RAGE binds with an AGE, it triggers an inflammatory reaction in tissues – and oddly, that is about all it does. Normally, inflammation is a protective mechanism and is part of the body’s response to pathogens, cell damage or irritants – but with AGEs, the body often cannot clear them and the affected cells eventually get damaged due to the persistent RAGE-induced inflammation.

The problem is that most of us seriously enjoy eating food loaded with AGEs – for these are the aromatic compounds that give that special delicious flavour to grilled, fried or roasted meats and baked goods. Photo: The Star
The problem is that most of us seriously enjoy eating food loaded with AGEs – for these are the aromatic compounds that give that special delicious flavour to grilled, fried or roasted meats and baked goods. Photo: The Star

Chronic inflammation in the cells lining the arterial walls due to RAGEs will eventually damage them.

The problem is that most of us seriously enjoy eating food loaded with AGEs – for these are the aromatic compounds that give that special delicious flavour to grilled, fried or roasted meats and baked goods.

Why most humans love AGEs may have an evolutionary basis – the smells and aromas of AGEs confirm that the food has been cooked with fire (or dry heat) and therefore unlikely to harbour dangerous bacteria or parasites, like those found in uncooked food.

As a little aside, there is some odd research evidence that milk from the Ethawah goat can reduce the inflammation caused by RAGEs – and I would bet that you didn’t know this before.

And before you ask, the answer is No, I don’t know about the effect of milk from other goats – but for a fee, I can find out for you.

So although life would probably be not worth living without AGEs to flavour our food, especially for gourmets, there are some ways we might be consuming excessive, dangerous amounts of these compounds and other related toxins which lead directly or indirectly to arteriosclerosis – and one major culprit appears to be the utilisation of unsuitable, rancid or overused cooking oils.

The oils used for commercial baking and cooking are very often plant-based – usually that’s because they are the cheapest oils available. All oils decompose when heated – this decomposition can be most clearly observed by the smoking effect once the oil exceeds a certain temperature (known as the smoking point).

The smoking point and rate of decomposition is different for the various kinds of cooking oils. The lower the smoking point, the less suitable the oil is for frying, although this is by no means the only criteria of unsuitability.

And if the oil is rancid or overused, then food cooked in such oils is actually potentially toxic. You are much more likely to encounter problems with oils when eating out as your home will very probably maintain cooking products in good storage conditions.

But actually that is also not the full story – else it would be easy to attain great cardiovascular health by just avoiding food cooked in a few oils, and that is simply not true.

In fact, as you will see, the story is not straightforward at all and the story of fats and health has been riddled with misunderstandings for years.

It sometimes reminds me of a lady visiting the Far East who asked, “I’ve had fish balls now for three days in a row – do Asians eat any other part of the fish?”

Next: A slippery, oily look into the role of hydrogen in fats

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