Research & Education

AGEs and Grilling

Warmer weather is finally here and stores have been stocking their floors with every model color and type of grill on the market each boasting to produce the best meal. Of course no model can boast of preventing the unhealthy advanced glycation end products (AGEs) produced as Americans charbroil their favorite meats. This however is unlikely to deter most enthusiasts from routinely using their beloved grill this summer. Reviewing some practical approaches to dealing with AGEs can help everyone enjoy both a happy and a healthy summer.

AGEs are molecules with high oxidation and inflammation potential making them serious considerations in health conditions rooted in these processes. Some level of AGE production occurs naturally when reducing sugars react with free amino groups of proteins fats or nucleic acids in a process known as the Maillard or browning reaction. Though normal metabolic processes can account for this type of AGE production dietary AGEs can cause levels to rise significantly compounding their health effects. As a solo molecule an AGE may not seem any more harmful than any other oxidative molecule. In vast numbers though AGEs begin to bind to cell surfaces cross-link with normal proteins and ultimately alter cell structure function and signaling. They have been a particular concern in the rising number of diabetes renal disease and cardiovascular disease cases prompting a renewed interest in ways to reduce AGE activity in the body.

Dietary AGEs have been recognized as being a prominent contributor to AGE activity in the body. This was evidenced when studies found that restriction of dietary AGEs seemed to prevent vascular and kidney dysfunction improved insulin sensitivity and thereby improve or prevent diabetes accelerated wound healing and lengthened lifespan. More recent studies have found diets high in AGEs resulted in significantly poorer memory faster cognitive decline and are associated with the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative processes and cerebrovascular disease. As AGEs generate reactive oxygen species by interacting with their receptors the target tissue is blasted with these disease-causing molecules explaining the link between AGEs and multiple organ dysfunctions. AGEs are blamed in part for the pathogenesis of hyperthyroidism. Women with PCOS can also point the finger at AGEs which are linked to ovulatory dysfunction. The development of atherosclerosis and associated hypertension can even be on the list of AGE offenses. The deleterious work of AGEs is almost limitless. If increased oxidation and inflammation can be linked to a health condition then so can AGEs.

This brings us to the natural question of how we can control dietary AGEs. Most of these destructive molecules are generated when foods are prepared using high heat or have been exposed to irradiation. Meat possesses the greatest amount of AGEs and when exposed to high heat and/or irradiation the amount of AGEs can increase exponentially. Recent trends in irradiating commercialized meats has led to increased dietary AGEs compared to previous generations when meat commercialization was not so advanced and riddled with technological procedures. Various cooking methods also affect AGE generation. A higher temperature combined with dry heat leads to the highest levels of AGEs in food and explains the common association between grilling and AGEs. Charbroiled meat is among the highest sources of AGEs whereas lightly grilled meats retaining some water content contain significantly fewer AGEs. A lower pH also negates AGE generation. Therefore marinating meats in an acidic solution such as lemon juice or vinegar before grilling can be helpful in ameliorating the effects of these molecules.

Plant foods are naturally low in AGEs due to their high amounts of water and antioxidants. In many cases pairing higher AGE foods with fresh vegetables and fruits is a smart idea. The latter does not necessary cancel out the effects of the former but a diet rich in natural antioxidants will surely work to diminish the effects of oxidation. So while the traditional charbroiled USDA prime steak and baked potato may not offer much hope against AGEs a summer meal of lightly grilled grass-fed steak marinated in a vinegar brine and paired with a fresh salad can offer a fun summer around the grill along with protection from the damaging effects of AGEs.