As you’ve noticed, we use a lot of animal products in our food. We believe that meat is a great way to improve our diets by providing for us easily digestible fats and proteins, and specific vitamins and minerals. There are, of course, plant sources of protein that can provide much of this nutrient value, but this task is a little more challenging. We recognize that when it comes to diets, everything depends on our own individual biochemistry.
If you do eat meat, there are certain rules to follow that will limit, or even eliminate, carcinogens and other toxins. We have very strict guidelines in our kitchen, and we use some specialty equipment to help us in our toxin-elimination goal. But even if you don’t own this fancy equipment, you can still take many of these steps in your own home. Below, we’ve shared our four top tips for improving the quality of meat in your home. (Hint: They involve more than just buying grass-fed beef.)
Four Ways to Improve Your Meat
Look at the whole animal: Eating head-to-tail is about more than just sustainability. Bones, organs, and connective tissue each contribute valuable nutrients that complement more popular steaks and roasts. As you can probably guess, pastured and organically-raised animals will have an even greater concentration of these goodies. Like with most food groups, variety is key—the best way to eat meat is by using organs and muscle meat in the same proportions as they appear in the animal itself.
At home: If you’re new to organ meats, try incorporating a little heart or tongue into meatballs and stews. They have a mild flavor and blend into muscle meat like a dream. Bone broth is likewise a great way to add collagen and gelatin to your meals.
Analyze your marinade: Some of the most common marinade ingredients are actually detrimental to the protein in meat. Acidic ingredients like vinegar break down the meat’s protein structure, leaving it susceptible to oxidation and the formation of free glutamates. Sugars promote intensive browning and charring, which is an indicator that the proteins have undergone a carcinogenic reaction.
At home: Instead of these harmful ingredients, try incorporating antioxidants like turmeric, sour cherry juice, and rosemary your marinades. These protect proteins instead of degrading them. Even better: they taste awesome!
Scrutinize your cooking methods: We like to cook all of our meats low-and-slow and maintain 100% humidity in the oven or cooking vessel. High humidity preserves moisture, prevents the meat from browning, and gives us a great deal of control over the cooking temperature. In addition, we never grill our proteins, as the grill is a major source of carcinogens. Grilling often involves high heat, which goes against our low-and-slow policy. Plus those all-too-common flare-ups are dangerous: any time fat hits the fire, the resulting flame contains a group of carcinogenic chemicals that inevitably coat the surface of the meat.
At home: Braised stews are a delicious way to cook at low temperature and high humidity. Try using a slow cooker during the summer to braise without turning on the stove.
Limit free glutamate formation: We’re just starting to learn about the risks of glutamate-heavy diets. Glutamate is an amino acid found most commonly in proteins in beef, dairy, grains and a few vegetables like mushrooms and tomatoes. When eaten as part of an intact protein, glutamates are very important for brain function. However, when proteins are processed, glutamate molecules are freed from the protein and become problematic when eaten. The influx of processed foods in our diets have led to a massive upswing in our free glutamate ingestion. High glutamate diets can potentially have detrimental neurological effects, so we’re working to reduce the amounts of free glutamates in the food we serve.
At home: The easiest way to reduce free glutamate consumption is to stop eating processed foods. We’ve also learned that acid-free marinades and low-temperature cooking limit the formation of extra free glutamate. Katherine Reid, founder of Unblind My Mind, is a wonderful resource for all things free glutamate.
Nerd Out on Protein
Head-to-tail: Even the best grocery stores and butcher shops today carry only muscle meat like steaks, roasts, chops, and legs. Muscle meat contains plenty of iron, protein, and the amino acid methionine, which are all important for our health. But these benefits aren’t the full picture. Too much of any of these nutrients can be detrimental, especially methionine. If you eat muscle meat at almost every meal, you are likely already eating too much methionine. Once in the body, methionine synthesizes another amino acid, called homocysteine. Increased levels of homocysteine in the body have been linked to heart disease. We believe this imbalance of methionine and homocysteine is one of the reasons why many nutritionists recommend lowering the intake of red meat. However, it is more complicated than just eliminating beef from the diet. It is possible to eat beef in a healthy way. To do so, the body needs an intake of vitamin B12, vitamin B6, folate, choline, betaine, and especially the amino acid glycine. Each of these nutrients help to neutralize the effects of homocysteine. Luckily, all of these nutrients can be found in other cuts of meat, like offal and bones.
Glycine is abundant in animal bones, and it becomes most available when these bones are boiled for an extended period of time. (Hence, bone broth.) It is crucial for many of our body’s functions, especially in the healing of muscle and the lubrication of our joints. Glycine is also required for the synthesis of DNA and the production of an antioxidant called glutathione, and it helps regulate everything from digestion to blood sugar to neurotransmission.
In addition, incorporating organ meats (or offal) into your diet will up your intake of a greater variety of nutrients. Offal is extremely nutrient-dense, and it gives us an abundance of vitamin A, vitamin D, B vitamins, and minerals like copper, potassium, manganese, iron, and zinc. Here’s the catch: you don’t want to switch to an entirely offal-filled diet (just like you shouldn’t eat only muscle meat). Ideally, you should try to eat as many different cuts as possible, prepared in the same proportions as they appear in the animal itself. Meatballs are a great way to incorporate an array of animal cuts into your meal. Our meatballs are around 1/4 organ meats and 3/4 muscle meat, just like they appear in the full body of the animal.
Marinades and Seasonings: Cooking the whole animal is only the first step. It’s equally as important to consider the ingredients with which the meat is being prepared. After all, why spend time sourcing excellent products if all of their benefits are destroyed during the cooking process?
One major difference between our marinades and common recipes is that we eliminate acidic and sugary ingredients. Acidic foods, like vinegar, are often used to tenderize meat fibers. The problem with this type of tenderizing is that it depends upon the unraveling of the meat proteins. When proteins unravel, the amino acids that make up the protein molecules are much easier to dislodge upon heating. Once the amino acids are free of the protein structure, they are free to oxidize and wreak havoc (see section below about MSG). There are much better ways to keep meat tender. Slow, gentle cooking is a great place to start. Another problem with vinegar is that if meats are exposed to too much acid for too long, the marinade is actually counterproductive—it will turn the meat dry!
Sugars, on the other hand, don’t unravel proteins. Instead, they accelerate browning reactions on the outside of the meat. These browning reactions are called Maillard reactions. Maillard reactions occur between sugars and the amino acids in the meat proteins. When meat hits a high temperature, the sugars and amino acids react to form a series of new flavor compounds. These new flavor compounds react, beginning a series of reactions that continue to form additional flavor compounds. Eventually these new flavor compounds form larger compounds called melanoidin pigments, which give seared meats (and many other cooked foods) their browned color. It is important to note that Maillard reactions can occur without added sugar since as all meats contain some amount of natural starches and sugars. However, these reactions increase rapidly as soon as additional sugar is introduced via a marinade or a rub. While Maillard reactions can happen at low temperatures, they are most active at 300 degrees and above.
What’s wrong with the Maillard reaction? While it certainly adds flavor and visual appeal, the Maillard reaction also leads to the formation of a couple of carcinogenic compounds: acrylamide and heterocyclic amines (HAs). Acrylamide concentration is highest in browned starchy vegetables, while HAs are most often seen in browned or charred meats (see more below)
Instead of using these harmful ingredients in our marinades, we incorporate antioxidants. Three of our favorites are turmeric, sour cherry juice, and rosemary. All of these ingredients help to counter the oxidative and carcinogenic effects of cooking proteins by binding with free radicals. Plus we love their flavors!
Cooking Methods: Fixing your marinade is only the first step in limiting the toxicity of cooked meat. It is also crucial to analyze temperature and cooking methods. Believe it or not, high heat cooking like searing and grilling can lead to some pretty scary results, namely HAs (above) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
HA formation happens when a couple of meat components called creatine and creatinine interact with sugar and the meat’s amino acids at high heat. At 300 degrees or above (the ideal temperature for the Maillard reaction), HA production is rapid, especially at the surface of the meat where the temperature is highest. To avoid HA production, we cook all of our meats in our precise combi oven at 300 degrees or below and keep the humidity at 100%. The high humidity in the oven keeps the temperature very consistent, and it preserves moisture within the meat. The result of this type of cooking is that there is very little browning on the exterior of the meat, but it is far healthier than using a searing hot saute pan.
Another set of carcinogens to avoid are called PAHs. Fortunately, they’re a little easier to avoid—simply avoid the grill. PAHs are formed when organic materials like wood (i.e. charcoal) and fat combine and burn. So when fat drips from a piece of meat into lit charcoal, the charcoal sends up smoke that is filled with PAHs. This smoke then coats the meat with PAHs. It’s not exactly what you want to be eating all summer long.
While there is plenty of scientific evidence that both HAs and PAHs are present in proteins cooked over high heat, and that both of these compounds are toxic to humans, it is not entirely clear at what concentration we begin to see detrimental effects. At Mission: Heirloom, you’ll never run the risk of eating HAs or PAHs. However, eating carefully grilled meats or lightly browned roasts is likely okay, as long as they’re eaten in small amounts.
Gentle cooking is the best way to preserve nutrients and minimize carcinogens in our carefully sourced and seasoned meats. We usually do this two ways: meatballs and braised stews. Both methods allow us to use a wide range of animal parts and keep the meat moist, flavorful, and safe.
A final note about meat cookery: While there have been studies showing an increase in cancer amongst red meat eaters, these studies all look at the more typical Western approach to meat cookery—heavy on the muscle meat and char. We believe that by taking the above steps (using the whole animal, marinating properly, and cooking low, slow, and humid) we limit, if not eliminate, any harmful effects of eating meat. But there’s one more variable to consider when preparing meat and other high-protein foods: free glutamate.
MSG and Free Glutamates: Many of us only think of MSG when we see signs in Chinese restaurants advertising their abstinence from the additive. But MSG and its derivatives and components are extremely pervasive in our processed-food laden world. Why? It has to do with the breakdown of proteins.
Glutamate, or more accurately, glutamic acid, is one of the 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. (Glutamic acid is technically the whole form of the amino acid and glutamate is the amino acid minus a hydrogen molecule; for our purposes we’ll refer to both as simply glutamates). Glutamate molecules are found in many different proteins, and they are crucial to our body’s function.
They are what’s called excitatory neurotransmitters, which means they help to regulate the excitatory pathway in our brains and in the rest of our nervous system. The excitatory pathway is responsible for things like the release of adrenaline, the control of moment, and the expression of thought. It works in tandem with the inhibitory pathway, which calms and relaxes the body and brain. When our bodies are working properly, there is a balance between the excitatory and inhibitory pathways, keeping our mind and body in check. However, when we have an imbalance on either side, we start to see problems, both on a minor and a major scale. Increased levels of glutamate in our bodies are one way that the scale can be tipped out of whack. High levels of glutamate increase the body’s excitatory pathways to exaggerated levels, which makes it hard for the inhibitory pathways to work properly.
Another important function of glutamate has to do with inflammation. The concentration of glutamate in the blood tells the body whether one is in a high or a low state of inflammation. If we’re in a high state of inflammation, the body sends out a stress response through the immune system. If the body is constantly exposed to high levels of glutamate, it will continue to send out these stress responses and keep inflammation levels high. As you can probably imagine, it isn’t healthy for the body to be in a constant state of stress and inflammation; chronic inflammation has been linked with many different disorders including autoimmune and behavioral diseases.
In other words, when consumed in a natural, balanced amount, glutamates are a great thing. The problem only occurs when we increase our glutamate intake above a normal range. Unfortunately, this happens pretty consistently in the processed food-filled Standard American Diet.
When we eat a food item like beef that is high in protein, our digestive system breaks down the proteins into their constituent amino acids. The body does this process gradually and with control. Based on our body’s need, enzymes called proteases will release amino acids from their proteins (at this point, we call them free amino acids) and transfer them to whichever part of the body needs them. This process is tightly regulated, and, when applied to natural whole foods, is a requirement for life.
When processed foods are manufactured, proteins break down in the same way that they do in our bodies. However, since this breakdown is occurring outside of the body, the now-freed amino acids, like free glutamate, don’t have a job. They are released into the food, where they may bond with other compounds like sodium or potassium. These new molecules are far simpler an easy to digest. Even when found on its own as a free molecule, glutamate tastes undeniably savory. When glutamate bonds with salts like sodium and potassium, it further amplifies the this flavor, giving the eater the experience of umami. Manufacturers have figured out that we tend to crave and enjoy highly savory foods, so they deliberately take a often take advantage of this bonding process to amplify the flavor of the food. This is why we frequently see free glutamate-filled processed foods.
As soon as we take a bite of food that is high in free glutamates, the glutamate receptors on our tongues signal to the rest of the body that we are about to ingest a lot of protein. If we’re eating a steak, this signaling process is a good thing. Steak is full of protein, and we need to be ready for it. However, most processed foods that are high in free glutamate are not high in protein. If we eat a bag of Doritos, our body prepares for an influx of protein that never appears. We over-stimulate the body for no reason, exposing the body to levels of glutamate for which the body is not prepared, and the result can be a splitting headache.
When we constantly bombard the body with excess glutamate, the body adapts by forming new glutamate receptors, effectively increasing our tolerance for the amino acid. Increased tolerances are not actually a good thing. There is a limit to the number of glutamate receptors our bodies can handle before cells become over taxed and succumb to disease or cell death. Furthermore, some scientists are researching the idea that glutamate consumption has direct effect on neurological and behavioral disorders like autism.
So how do we limit our exposure to these excess glutamates?
The first step is to limit or even eliminate processed foods. At Mission Heirloom, we make everything from scratch—that way we don’t even need to worry about the processed food issue. Next, we consider the ways in which we can limit the breakdown of proteins before they hit the digestive system. There are a few culprits that we address in our kitchen that you can bring home to yours:
- Vinegar: There are two issues with using vinegar in the kitchen. First, the fact that vinegar is a fermented product is problematic. Vinegar is made by fermenting fruits and starches into alcohol, and then fermenting those alcohols again to turn them into vinegar. Each of these cycles activates enzymes that break down whatever proteins are present in the original fruit or starch, releasing free glutamates. The total free glutamate count will vary depending on the style of vinegar, but they all contain a noticeable level of free glutamates. Second, when mixed with protein, vinegar unravels protein structure (see above). You can see the ways in which acid interacts with meat by marinating a steak in a highly acidic substance. Over time, the exterior of the meat will turn mealy and soft. It not only doesn’t taste great—it also increases the likelihood that free glutamates will be released.
- Time: The longer a protein-filled substance cooks, the more concentrated any free amino acids will become. For example, tomatoes naturally contain a small amount of free glutamate (around 0.1%). Eaten raw or lightly cooked, they will retain this small amount of free glutamate, but it will only cause reactions in people that are highly sensitive. However, when tomatoes are cooked down into say, tomato paste, any free glutamates present in the tomato are concentrated. In other words, cooking doesn’t actually increase the levels of free glutamate, but it does reduce the amount of water, in the food. Each serving of tomato paste has more free glutamates in it than the same serving of fresh tomatoes, simply by virtue of the fact that tomatoes contain more water. Cooking time also affects items like bone broth. The longer the bones are cooked, the more gelatinous and collagen-filled the broth becomes. Once the collagen is fully released from the bones, it is more susceptible to protein degradation and free glutamate formation.
- Sugar: As we hinted at above, sugar does not increase free glutamate content on its own. Rather, it works to speed up the Maillard reaction on the surface of the food. This reaction is the result of the breakdown of surface proteins and gives a golden color on the surface of meat. Remember, protein breakdown = free amino acids.
Ingredient Labeling: Katherine Reid has put together an awesome list of ingredients that contain free glutamates. Look for these words on all ingredient labels when you’re at the grocery store!
|Auxi Grow (sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables)|
|Bouillon and broth|
|Brown rice syrup|
|Enzyme modified (anything)|
|Fermented protein (any)|
|Flavors or flavoring (ex: natural flavors, raspberry flavor, vanilla flavor, etc)|
|Hydrolyzed protein (any)|
|Lipolyzed butter fat|
|Modified food starch|
|Non-specific added seasonings/spices|
|Reduced fat milk (skim, 1%, or 2%) and other products made artificially low in fat or fat-free|
|Soy protein isolate|
|Soy protein, soy protein concentrate|
|Soy sauce extract|
|Ultra-pasteurized proteins (ex: milk and cream)|
|Whey protein isolate|
|Whey protein, whey protein concentrate|