We all know smoking contributes to lung cancer. By and large, the message if you want to avoid lung cancer is simple: Don’t smoke.
But there’s another way lung cancer permeates the body, and it even puts people who eat healthy food at risk (particularly if you’re a fan of stir-fry or Asian foods). If that’s you, you’ll want to pay attention to these findings…
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What you smell in the kitchen could be hurting you…
A strange trend surfaced in Asia recently. Asian women seem predisposed to develop lung cancer, despite the fact that very few smoke. Some researchers attributed it to hormonal differences, while others pointed to genetic issues.
But the explanation that keeps coming up, and which now appears to be the real cause, has to do with cooking—and frying in particular.
In fact, there’s now evidence that exposure to fumes from cooking oils at a high heat, such as one might create when using a wok, actually subject people to a mutagenic toxin. This falls in line with research in Taiwan that shows only 10 percent of women with lung cancer smoke, while in comparison, 86 percent of Taiwanese men with lung cancer smoke. The explanation, of course, is that women traditionally do the cooking in Taiwan.
The cause behind all of this seems to be that when you heat up certain oils, such as vegetable oils, they undergo a complex series of chemical reactions and you trigger the release of high concentrations of chemicals called mutagenic aldehydes along with naphthalene (a banned substance contained in traditional mothballs. Nasty stuff.).
These chemicals have been linked to multiple illnesses — cancer, heart disease, dementia, “malformations” during pregnancy, inflammation, heightened ulcer risk, and increased blood pressure.
In one particular study, over 670 Chinese women with lung cancer were compared to roughly 700 women without it. (Note that of those women with lung cancer, 65% had never smoked.)
Researchers found that risk was considerably higher for those women who had frequently engaged in high-heat cooking with oil, measured as stir-frying 30 or more dishes per week. Cooking with rapeseed oil (canola oil) was found to be particularly toxic.
Then a study published by the Journal of Environmental Monitoring found that the deep-frying commonly done by Malaysian chefs released even more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons than those found in the stir-frying of Chinese kitchens.
And lung cancer isn’t the only scary result of these fumes. It’s also strongly believed they contribute to bladder and cervical cancer.
It’s not just Asian food, either
The challenge in studies like this is that it’s just about impossible to measure toxic fume exposure while cooking, so researchers are forced to depend on recall bias (in this case, that’s where someone diagnosed with lung cancer is more likely to remember potential exposure to a toxin than someone with no health issue). So keep in mind there was no choice but to estimate some of these research findings.
But it’s not just those who engage in Asian cooking who face the risk. One researcher found that frying the common British meal of fish and chips, normally cooked in vegetable oil, produced 100 to 200 times more toxic aldehydes than the safe limit set by the World Health Organization.
The deep-frying process of French fries—or chips, as the British would say—produces large amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons along with the compound acrylamide, another carcinogenic chemical. What’s hardly surprising is that many of the chemicals released from oils heated to high levels are also found in tobacco smoke and exhaust fumes.
In a study published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, it was estimated that someone regularly exposed to high levels of these carcinogens would have as much as a one in 100 percent chance of developing cancer. That may not sound very high, but it represents a much greater risk than that of someone who is not exposed.
The types of oils you use to cook are critically important, and so is the cooking method. In research published by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, gas and electric cooking methods were compared. Gas was found to produce higher levels of the cancer-causing fumes than electric, particularly when cooking in a confined space where the concentration of hot oil in the breathing zone of the cook can rise quickly.
In addition, the researchers found that higher levels of ultrafine particles, which penetrate deeper into the lung, were produced more readily on the gas stove than the electric one.
3 ways to reduce exposure to cooking fumes
Indoor “air pollution” as it’s considered, particularly from cooking with rapeseed and soybean cooking oils, could be affecting you in ways you never dreamed of. Frying food in sunflower oil or corn oil isn’t much better.
Of course, when it comes to total risk, several other factors are at play, including deep frying versus stir frying, and the number of years a person spends engaged in this type of cooking.
But, thankfully, not all oils are created equal. You’ll find much lower levels of aldehydes when you use butter, olive oil, and lard. Heated coconut oil has the lowest level of aldehydes and other harmful chemicals out of those measured.
So if you have to fry, use extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or butter. I use coconut oil myself. I’ve also read that macadamia nut oil is a good choice.
Now, in one sense all of this isn’t news because it’s been known for years that heating oils to the “smoke point” produces carcinogens, and that the worst offenders are the vegetable oils like corn and canola. But it was thought the problem lay in consuming the oils.
Now there’s persuasive evidence that inhaling the fumes is unhealthy, too.
If you’re well-informed about health, you know that much of this turns previous “health advice” on its head. For example, people have been told for years that vegetable oils are rich in polyunsaturated fats, and that choices like corn oil and sunflower oil are much better for your health than the alternatives.
Savvy consumers know better. Start by taking a good look at the type of oils you cook or fry with.
Next, if you tend to cook with oils at high heat, check your ventilation. Both mechanical and natural ventilation can help cut the levels of possible inhaled carcinogens. Exposure can also be minimized by installing a working fume-extractor or hood over a gas stove.
Best of all is to take the healthier route and boil or steam your foods. If you’re looking to keep the food’s nutrients intact, then steaming is the way to go. Poaching or grilling are good options as well, just take care not to char your food when grilling as the black particles of grilled foods can contain toxins as well.