Complexities in Food Safety

Complexities in Food Safety – The Maillard Reaction Part Two


In a previous post I discussed why the WHO classified red meat as a carcinogen. Unfortunately there is a similar concern in vegetable matter as well – Acrylamide. Considered an Extremely Hazardous Substance by the United States, acrylamide is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. Easily absorbed through the skin it has been linked to tumors in the testes, lungs, adrenal glands, and thyroid. It is also a skin irritant and has been known to cause Peripheral Neuropathy. In short, acrylamide is not something you want to deal with.

In 2002 Eden Tareke, an Eritean scientist working in Sweden, discovered acrylamide in starchy foods. The highest levels have been found in potatoes and grains, but it is also present black olives, coffee, prunes, and many other foods. Because this is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction cooking is required for acrylamide to form. Although the process is not fully understood, it seems to be produced when asparagine interacts with reducing sugars, and there is some evidence that reactive carbonyls play a role as well. Darkly browned potatoes have higher levels than lightly browned, and certain cooking methods don’t produce it at all. Boiling for instance does not allow the food to get to the required 120 °C for acrylamide formation. Frying and broiling in oil seem to create higher levels as well, while dry baking produces less. The length of cooking also affects acrylamide formation, with longer heat exposure leading to higher levels. All of this means that we can change our food production processes to reduce the amount of acrylamide in food.

So we know that acrylamide is dangerous, we know that it is created when we cook certain foods, but how does this affect human health? The data is still murky. Average diet intake is well below the levels considered to cause neuropathy and fertility issues. Its risk as a carcinogen in food is much less clear. The American Cancer Society is still uncertain if it increases your chance of getting of getting cancer. It should be mentioned that there is another common source of acrylamide exposure – cigarette smoke. So if you worried about acrylamide exposure you can reduce your intake of fried potato products, avoid smoking, and consider cooking grains at less than 120 °C. Me, I’m not too worried about the amounts present in food. There are plenty of health reasons to avoid french fries already, I don’t need to tack on another one.

Posted on February 18, 2018

Judging a Books Cover

Sci-fi and fantasy books are notorious for having misleading covers. Often they depict events that don’t happen, characters that don’t match their descriptions, and sometimes completely different setting with no basis in the book. We all know the saying – Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover – but there are things we can learn from the cover. In this case I’ll be looking at the cover of Fire Get, a relatively obscure fantasy book by Cheryl J. Franklin and released in 1987. Why this particular cover? Because what it gets wrong reveals a lot about gender biases in storytelling, especially in fantasy settings.

!Spoiler alert for a 30 year old book!

            Before we can analyze what is wrong about the cover, we need some background first. Fire Get is the story of an untrained sorceress, a highly trained wizard, and their mortal companions as they try to save the world. Fairly standard overview, but Cheryl J. Franklin did some interesting things with an old formula. Rhianna, the aforementioned sorceress, is the main character and never allows anyone else to make decisions for her. She runs away from her constricting and domineering father when he arranges her marriage against her will. She manages to survive in a dangerous magical forest for many months until her path crosses a group of adventures. Desperate for some human companionship she starts to follow them. It’s important to note that they have no idea she is doing so, and she only reveals herself weeks later when she has decided to join them. Eventually they meet up with the rest of the group, Kaedric, the aforementioned wizard, and a kindly abbot. Kaedric is an extremely powerful wizard, far beyond any of his peers. In this book that’s not necessarily a good thing. In Fire Get magical ability is inversely related with empathy and stability. Extremely powerful mages tend to be tyrants, insane, or both. This is a central part of Kaedrics character – he must always strive to be human. The abbot is his only friend and his prime emotional contact the human race. Now that the pieces are in place we can analyze the cover.

The two characters shown are Kaedric and Rhianna. This is an obvious reference to a scene where the party is trying to fight off gargoyles. However what is described in the book is very different. For one Rhianna never passed out and never needed protecting. She was in fact the only character able to keep herself safe from the gargoyles. Kaedric did defend a fallen ally during this fight, but he was protecting the abbot. I don’t know why the late Tim Hildebrandt drew the scene this way, but I think it says a lot. Somewhere along the line it changed from a man protecting his oldest friend and a woman defending herself to a man heroically saving a helpless woman. This is problematic for obvious reasons. Rhianna was holding her own just fine, and at this point in the story Kaedric has only been outright hostile to her. I hope I don’t need to go into details on why this is sexist, because I would like to focus on another aspect. How this is detrimental to Kaedrics character as well, lessening the core impact of his character. His struggle to relate to normal humans when he can level entire cities with a thought is an integral part of the story. If you remove his closeness with the abbot he becomes a much simpler character – the archetypical anti-hero who struggles to contain his awesome powers but always does the right thing anyway.

To me this is a beautiful example on why feminism is beneficial for everyone.  You cannot force specific role on women without also forcing men away from those roles. If cooking is “women’s work” then by definition a man who cooks is less masculine. By changing Rhianna into a stereotypical damsel in distress the male characters must also change into stereotypical white knights, even though it goes against their core character traits and destroys their character growth.

Posted on January 12, 2018

Complexities in Food Safety – The Maillard Reaction

We often think of food safety through the lens of sourcing. If we buy healthy items from reputable providers who follow best practices, the food will be safe to eat.  For the most part this is true, but a growing body of research involving the Maillard reaction is showing that the way we prepare food can create carcinogens and toxins. The Maillard reaction is a complex chemical process responsible for food “browning” when exposed to heat. With multiple reagents and even more products, it is poorly understood and is a hot bed for current research. In the past two decades we have discovered surprising carcinogens in food that were not present before cooking. This post will examine the broad strokes of the chemistry of carcinogens in meat and how they form.

In 2015 the internet exploded when the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified red meat products as a carcinogen. Highly processed meat, pan fried meat, and meat cooked over open fire were the worst contenders. What’s interesting about it is where the carcinogens come from. Certainly some of the come from the production process of things like hot dogs, but even carcinogen free raw meat became carcinogenic after cooking. The most likely chemical suspects are heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), although there are likely other chemicals involved. HCAs develop when amino acids, reducing sugars, and creatine are exposed to high temperatures. PAHs develop when juices from meat create open flames, colloquially known as flare ups. The smoke from these flare ups contain PAHs, which get reintroduced to the meat. Unlike other carcinogens found is food, these are a result of naturally occurring chemicals undergoing reactions in normal cooking environments. Carcinogenic pesticides can be removed or avoided, but we cannot remove amino acids from meat.  The question then becomes how dangerous are HCAs and PAHs and what we can do to mitigate their formation.

Since the WHO has already declared them carcinogenic, it is safe to say there is some risk associated with eating red and processed meat. However the exact risk is difficult to quantify. There are a plethora of factors involved in cancer risk, including genetics, age, field of work, stress levels, tobacco use, diet, and so on. Through rigorous analysis though the IARC found that eating 50 grams of processed meat products daily increased the lifetime risk of colorectal cancer from 5% to 6%. Although this is a statistically significant increase, it is not serious enough to recommend never eating these products. Even if that was recommended, people would never stop anyway. That leaves us with mitigation for protecting ourselves. The most obvious way to mitigate is to just eat less of it, but there may be other methods of mitigation as well. Perhaps there are chemical compounds that can be added to meat that interrupt that creation of HCAs and PAHs. New methodologies for processing and cooking meat may reduce their prevalence as well. More research is required to discover new best practices.

Posted on November 4, 2017