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Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) in Food: Are They Harmful?

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed when proteins, lipids, or nucleic acids react with sugars under high heat during cooking and food processing. They also occur as a result of metabolism, smoking, and environmental factors such as air pollution. AGEs have been associated with chronic diseases. Strategies to reduce dietary AGEs intake can help you to minimize health hazards. In this article, you’ll learn six ways to reduce dietary AGE intake.

Key takeaways:

How are AGEs formed?

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) refer to the Maillard reaction, which occurs between macromolecules (protein, lipid, and nucleic acid) and sugars (glucose, fructose, and pentose) when exposed to heat.

AGEs also provide aroma and browning, which is the reason for its common application in the food industry.

AGEs arise when cooking and processing foods at high temperatures. Processed foods have been associated with higher levels of AGEs. These products often undergo high-temperature cooking, such as frying, baking, and grilling, which promotes the formation of AGEs. Additionally, processed foods may contain added sugars, which further contribute to AGE production during cooking.

Production of AGEs is affected by several factors, including pH, moisture, temperature, and nutrient composition:

  • Temperature or pH increase. Speeds up Maillard reaction because protein dissolves easier in higher pH and amino acids become more favorable for reaction.
  • Dry heat. Increases the production of AGEs. Moisture helps decrease AGEs when cooking.
  • Food nutrient composition. Affects AGEs formation. Proteins are more prone to AGEs formation than fats and carbohydrates.

Keep in mind that other factors such as smoking, environmental factors, and exercise affect AGEs formation. While smoking and air pollution has shown to increase AGEs formation, exercise has been shown to decrease it.

Health implications of AGEs

The body is exposed to AGEs from both internal and external sources (dietary AGEs). As the body ages, AGEs accumulate due to continuous exposure.

AGEs bind to their receptors RAGEs, which cause oxidative stress. Increased oxidative stress promotes the release of proinflammatory cytokines, which are associated with chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, and kidney diseases.

The attribution of AGEs to diseases has been linked to high blood glucose levels. For example, in diabetes patients, high blood glucose levels may accelerate the glycation of proteins, which interferes with the normal function of cells, causing complications.

Accumulation of AGEs has been associated with cardiovascular diseases. A study investigated the effects of low- and high-AGEs-containing meals on vascular function in type 2 diabetes patients. Results showed that acute impairment in vascular function was more noticeable in response to high-AGEs-containing meals.

AGEs have been found to accumulate in the brain over time, contributing to oxidative stress, inflammation, and impaired cellular function. These detrimental effects may play a role in the development and progression of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

6 ways to reduce dietary AGE intake

Although it’s not possible to eliminate AGEs from the diet, choosing whole, unprocessed foods and adopting cooking methods that minimize AGEs formation can help reduce exposure to these harmful compounds. You can minimize AGEs formation by:

  1. Lowering the cooking temperature. High-heat cooking increases AGEs formation. Eggs cooked at medium-low temperatures have lower AGEs than eggs cooked at high heat.
  2. Increasing moisture. Boiling, poaching, steaming, and stewing are low-AGE–generating cooking methods. For example, broiled chicken has more than twice as many AGEs as boiled or stewed chicken.
  3. Increasing acidity (lowering pH). Another method is to increase the acidity by adding acidic elements such as lemon juice and vinegar before cooking.
  4. Limiting high AGEs food sources. Animal-based protein sources contain high dietary AGEs (dAGEs). When prepared with the same cooking methods, beef has the highest dAGEs, followed by cheeses, poultry, pork, fish, and eggs. High-fat or aged cheeses have higher dAGEs than low-fat or reduced-fat cheeses. Some of the highest dAGEs foods are butter, margarine, cream cheese, and margarine. Reducing fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, solid fats, and most importantly, limiting highly processed foods, can lower dietary intake of AGEs.
  5. Choosing low AGEs food sources. Dietary AGEs are lowest in breads, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and milk unless they contain or are prepared with added fats. For example, biscuits have much higher AGEs than low-fat bagels. Non-fat milk has lower AGEs than whole milk or cheese.
  6. Consuming foods with natural anti-AGE compounds. Vitamin C and vitamin E can limit AGEs formation by binding proteins, thus reducing the reaction. You can pay attention to your intake of fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants, including vitamins C and E.

The formation of AGEs during cooking and food processing raises concerns about their potential harm to our health. While they provide aroma and browning to food, AGEs have been linked to cell damage and chronic diseases. Understanding the factors that influence AGE formation and implementing strategies to minimize their intake can help mitigate the potential risks associated with dietary AGEs.

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