Enhancing flavor and aroma

Heat degrades (breaks apart) flavor and aroma chemicals. As a result, most cooked food has a more intense flavor and aroma than raw food.

Cheeseburgers for your health: A hot story

When you heat fats, their molecules break apart into chemicals known as free radicals, molecule fragments that may hook up together to form potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. These compounds are produced in higher numbers at higher heats; the usual safe cutoff is around 500 degrees Fahrenheit (right before "broil" on the oven dial). Burned fat or smoking oil, for example, has more nasties than plain melted fat or oil that is warm but not smoking.

As a result, many nutritionists warn against eating the crisp, crinkly, absolutely yummy browned top layer of foods, especially burned meats, which in 1998 were tentatively linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in women. Of course, the theory has yet to be proven, and as is true with so much in modern nutrition, the story may be more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Why? Because in 1996, Martha Belury, of Purdue University, discovered that cheeseburgers —

yes, cheeseburgers . . . grilled, fried, broiled, whatever — are rich in CLA (short for conjugated dienoic linoleic acid), a form of an essential fatty acid (a topic that I cover in Chapter 7).

In Belury's lab, CLA slowed or reversed skin, breast, and stomach cancers in mice at the three stages of tumor development: early, when the cell is first damaged; midway in the process, when precancerous cells multiply to form tumors; and late, when tumors begin to enlarge and spread to other organs.

Whether this benefit happens in people nobody knows, but it sure reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, in which the hero wakes up at some point in the future to discover that corned beef sandwiches are health food. Hey, you can't make this stuff up!

A good example is the mustard oils that give cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower, their distinctive (some may say offensive) odors. The longer you cook these vegetables, the worse they smell. On the other hand, heat destroys diallyl disulfide, which is the chemical that gives raw garlic its bite and bark. So cooked garlic tastes and smells milder than the raw version.

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