Grilled Food May Be Frying Your Brain

Barbecue season may still be several months away, but a new study suggests that firing up the grill fewer times this summer may be one of the best things you can do for your brain.
It’s all about minimizing your exposure to AGEs — advanced glycation endproducts — chemical compounds created when protein and carbohydrates interact in the absence of a controlling enzyme.
AGEs can cause serious cellular damage, and certain foods and methods of preparation can drastically increase levels of the dangerous compounds in the body. For example, pairing fatty meats with high temperature cooking conditions (i.e. grilling a hamburger) is a recipe for extremely elevated amounts of AGEs.
When it comes to factors that accelerate age-related cell damage, experts are increasingly implicating the aptly-named AGEs in the same breath as oxidation. The link between elevated AGE levels in the body and a decrease in the activity of chemicals that help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and prediabetes was recently highlighted in a study published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
After tracking a group of American adults, age 60 and older, over a period of nine months, researchers from the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital found that individuals who had greater amounts of AGEs in their blood were more likely to experience cognitive decline and display signs of insulin resistance.
“Age-associated dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is currently epidemic in our society and is closely linked to diabetes,” says study author Helen Vlassara, MD, professor and director of the Division of Experimental Diabetes and Aging in the Brookdale Department of Geriatrics at Mount Sinai in a statement. “Our studies of both animals and human subjects confirm that AGE-rich foods are a lifestyle-driven reality with major health implications.”
Vlassara admits that additional research on AGEs, diet and health needs to be conducted to flesh out the precise effects of the compounds on aging and health. But her team’s findings help highlight the importance of not only which foods we eat, but how we cook them.
Strategies for minimizing AGEs
It’s not possible to avoid AGEs altogether, but Vlassara says that minimizing ones exposure to these compounds may offer health benefits. “By cutting AGEs, we bolster the body’s own natural defenses against Alzheimer’s disease as well as diabetes.”
In a previous study, Vlassara and a group of dietary experts measured the AGE content of 549 foods, beverages and condiments commonly found in the American diet. Their investigation yielded some interesting insights:
  • The average daily AGE intake of a healthy New Yorker is around 14,700 kilounits (kU) per day, though a suggested level of AGE consumption has yet to be established by experts.

  • Foods with high levels of AGEs included margarines, cheeses and meats: Fried bacon (91,577 kU/ 100 grams) Butter (26,480 kU/100 g), Margarine (17,520 kU/100 g), McDonald’s Big Mac (7,801 kU/100g), McDonald’s Chicken McGrill (5,171 kU/100g), grated Parmesan cheese (16,900 kU/100g), thin crust pizza (6,825 kU/100 g).

  • Foods with low levels of AGEs included certain fish, soups, vegetables, fruit, bread and rice: Smoked salmon (572 kU/100 g), Campbell’s chicken noodle soup (1.60 kU/ 100 g), an egg white cooked for 10 minutes (43 kU/100 g)Tomato (23 kU/100g) Banana (9 kU/ 100g) Uncle Ben’s white rice (9 kU/100g).

  • A few seemingly-healthy foods have significant amounts of AGEs: Quaker chocolate and peanut butter granola bar (3,177 kU/100 g), dried figs (2,666 kU/100g), Fiber One cereal (1,403 kU/100 g), Apple cinnamon Nutrigrain bar (2,143 kU/100g).

  • Few foods contain no AGEs (0.0 kU/100 g): Vodka, Rum, Mustard, fat free milk served cold, orange juice made from fresh fruit, syrup and white sugar.

  • Preparation is key: Heat and dry conditions significantly up the AGE content of most foods. For example, if you start with a raw salmon fillet (528 kU/100 g), you can increase the amount of AGEs by nearly six times–to 3,083 kU/100g–if you pan fry it with olive oil. By contrast, steaming that same fillet in foil for eight minutes on medium heat will only elevate the AGE level to 1,000 kU/100 g.

(The full list of foods evaluated by the researchers can be found here.)
Overall, the suggested diet for those wanting to minimize the amount of AGEs they eat will seem familiar because — as the study authors note — it closely follows along the lines of the highly-touted Mediterranean diet:
  • Consume more low-fat milk products, fish, legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and fewer fatty meats, highly-processed foods, full-fat dairy products and solid fats.
  • The best cooking techniques are boiling, steaming, stewing and poaching.
  • And, if you must fire up that grill, just be sure to marinade your meats in acidic solutions, such as vinegar or lemon juice.