While walking down Fremont Street in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I paused to look in the window of the infamous Heart Attack Grill. This is the place where patrons are made to wear hospital gowns and are served 8,000 calorie "Quadruple Bypass Burgers" by waitresses dressed like nurses who wheel around IV poles that dispense wine instead of saline.
The restaurant was not only full, but there was a line of thrill seekers outside who, presumably after being unable to find a crumbling volcano rim to stand next to or a freight train to lie down in front of, chose instead to eat at the Heart Attack Grill.
This was right after a new study had set the media atwitter by presumably declaring that eating red and processed meat was no longer unhealthy. Fox News had responded by telling audiences to "go eat a steak." The New York Times called it a remarkable turnabout.
So were some of these "patients" at the Heart Attack Grill because the media had given them a free health pass to eat all the red meat they wanted? I doubt it. The grill is always packed full on weekends, just like its patrons' arteries.
But wait, you're probably wondering how I could make that baseless crack about clogged arteries if eating red or processed meat was no longer considered unhealthy. Well, I've got a couple of reasons.
One, the study never made those claims about red meat. At best, they'd said that the evidence that meat is bad wasn't strong enough to tell people to stop eating it.
It was just a case of the media jiu jitsuing the facts a little, along with some wishful thinking, but secondly and more importantly, the truth is that red meat is actually CONDITIONALLY harmful, and that's largely the reason that the data on meat is so inconsistent.
Much of this has to do with a little-known factor known as "protein oxidation." The good news is that protein oxidation is largely controllable.
The bad news (especially for the poor bastards at the aptly named Heart Attack Grill) is that hardly anyone knows what it is or even if they do, what to do about it.
This Is What Makes Meat "Bad"
You've probably heard about lipid oxidation. Aside from mucking up the flavor and nutritional value of various fats, the oxidation of dietary lipids can lead to the production of a rogue's gallery of carcinogens, DNA-damaging hydroperoxides, and carbonyl compounds that interfere with cellular signal transduction, all contributing to the initiation of a host of diseases typically associated with old age and rotten health.
But the effects of protein oxidation are a lot less well known. It has to do with the oxidative degradation of particular amino acids instead of lipids. It occurs during the handling, processing, storage, preparation, and even digestion of muscle meats.
Once it occurs – and it almost always does, at least somewhere along the line between slaughter and digestion – it can expose organs to the cytotoxic and mutagenic potential of these free radical species, possibly leading to or contributing to the development of heart disease, Alzheimer's, inflammatory bowel disease, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, premature aging, and host of other stuff you don't want.
Oh, and in case it matters to you, protein oxidation also negatively affects the flavor, tenderness, and nutritional value of the afflicted meat.
But protein oxidation doesn't just affect red meat. It can affect any kind of protein, including the protein in your milk or even your protein powder.
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to put the kibosh on protein oxidation and, in doing so, make meat a better, and in some cases, a downright healthy nutritional choice.
Here's How To Make Meat (and All Protein) Healthy
1 – Buy and cook fresh
The freer your meat is from any human handling or processing, even if that processing just involves freezing and thawing, the less protein oxidation it suffers. Pretend you live in New York City in the 1940's and don't have a refrigerator in your apartment so you have to make daily trips to the butcher to get your protein.
2 – Use lots of spices
Several spices have been shown to reduce protein oxidation. Among them are marjoram, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint, turmeric, curry powder, chili powder, black pepper, parsley, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary, cloves, ground cinnamon, and probably a whole lot of others. Each of these is rich in protective polyphenols.
Use any of these or, ideally, combos of several to flavor up your meat while bulletproofing it against oxidation.
3 – Avoid ultra-processed meats
While it's possible to buy a "clean" sausage, most of these things are so heavily processed that they're an oxidative nightmare. That goes double for processed lunchmeats. However, the fact that many of these monstrosities contain protein-oxidation reducing spices might be a saving grace.
4 – Load up on other polyphenols while cooking
Use cooking oils with a high polyphenol content like extra virgin olive oil to prepare your cut of meat. You might also want to use meat condiments like jams or fruit purees to add protection against oxidation, along with some pizzazz.
5 – Buy non-cured meats
Cured meats are those that have had moisture removed through the use of salt or other chemicals. Representatives include beef jerky and, unfortunately, bacon.
That doesn't necessarily mean you have to turn your back on the latter, though. Bacon is just too nutritious (while possessing a good amount of unsaturated fat) to give up without a fight, so try to eat it along with a glass of orange juice so its polyphenols can offer some protection against the heavily oxidized meat.
6 – Don't use too much heat and don't expose meat to heat for any longer than necessary
Repeat after me, "I will never order any meat well done." Neither will you eat meat that is burnt or blackened. Use low to moderate heat to cook meat. Likewise, avoid simmering meat at 220 degrees for long periods of time.
The same goes for other meat products like chicken or fish. As a matter of fact, frying your fish for a couple of minutes is infinitely better, protein oxidation wise, than steaming it at 220 degrees for ten minutes.
7 – Vacuum pack your meats, if possible
This may be over the top for some of you, but if you have one of those vacuum pack machines that serial killers use to preserve their uneaten body parts, consider using it on your freshly bought meat before storing it in the freezer.
8 – Choose lower fat meats
Meats with lower fat content have fewer cross-reactions between oxidized fats and oxidized proteins. If the meat you're cooking has a high drip loss (meaning that it loses a lot of its mass when you cook it), it's indicative of a low-quality piece of meat and more prone to protein oxidation. Opt, when possible, for lower-fat red meats, or lower fat meats like chicken and fish.
9 – Keep your protein powder cool and out of the sun
Generally speaking, protein powder oxidation shouldn't be a problem unless you store your protein powder outside in the hot sun next to your cactus collection. As common sense dictates, store your protein in a cool place, away from intense light.
10 – Buy minimally processed milk
Raw milk is of course fine, if you have confidence it's free of Brucella, Listeria, Cryptosporidium, and their malignant friends. Even pasteurized is okay, since it wasn't exposed to overly high temperatures for an overly long period during the pasteurization process.
What you should watch out for, though, is ultra-high processed milk, or UHT, which is one of the dairy industry's newer innovations.
Hmm, Steak or Sautéed Hummus Patty?
The question remains, "If I follow most of these recommendations in buying and cooking my meat, can I stop worrying about all the confusing, contradictory reports about meat safety?" The answer is yes, mostly... at least until the next damning report causes us to again hit the pause button on meat consumption.
- Clare, D.E. et al. "Comparison of sensory, microbiological, and biochemical parameters of microwave versus indirect UHT fluid skim milk during storage." Journal of Dairy Science 88.12 (2005): 4172-4182.
- Dearlove, Rebecca P., et al. "Inhibition of protein glycation by extracts of culinary herbs and spices." Journal of Medicinal Food 11.2 (2008): 275-281.
- Estévez M, Luna C. "Dietary protein oxidation: A silent threat to human health?" Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 22;57(17):3781-3793.
- Ganhão, Rui, et al. "Protein oxidation in emulsified cooked burger patties with added fruit extracts: Influence on colour and texture deterioration during chill storage." Meat Science 85.3 (2010): 402-409.
- Mauron, Jean. "Influence of processing on protein quality." Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology 36.4-SupplementI (1990): S57-S69.