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Has Your Spine Ever Been Stir-Fried?

by Mark Cammack    August 25, 2019

Image of an Asian man cooking with a wok that is on fire with smoke and bright yellow-orange flames. At the top of the photo it say in a large Asian influenced font, Trans Fat Inferno: Hot Wok Food.

Trans Fat Inferno: Hot Wok Food: In fiery wok stir-frying, the heat is high and cooking oils can turn into harmful trans fats or even burst into flames.

Asian foods have been a joy for me at times. There is something special about the treat of so many exotic flavors and textures. This interest began when my father bought me a meal as a youth. We had relocated to an area near Atlanta, Georgia, for a while. Out of curiosity we sampled the tastes of different Asian restaurants in the city of Marietta. At the time I counted no less than nine Chinese eateries near one of the long main streets. Each had their own personality with varying menu.

Songshu Yu (松鼠鱼) or Squirrel Fish had an immediate delicious impact. One establishment made it in their own way. A fish fillet was breaded, fried, and the tail curled up like that of a squirrel. It was coated with sesame-honey sauce and just a hint of hot red pepper. Another friendly place served excellent Moo Goo Gai Pan (蘑菇雞片) that was not sweet or greasy at all, but had a wonderful delicate taste with mixed bamboo shoots, snow peas, bok choy, water chestnuts, and chicken. The pork and vegetable Spring Rolls (春卷) or their egg roll variants were also unique at each restaurant. A few were either too greasy or all wrapper and little filling. The really good ones were generously filled and dangerously delicious. I learned to relish hot mustard with them.

We also discovered where not to go. The Peking Duck (北京烤鴨) from one place was tiny, overcooked, dried out, and overpriced. The leathery meal was not edible. Dad returned it and we never returned. The people running it were not typical restaurant types. It had what is best described as an underworld feel to it. Most of the establishments were just fine.

Later in life I met a stout fellow nicknamed Tiger who was also a Japanese cook. He resembled the weightlifter, wrestler, and actor Harold Sakata. Mr. Sakata is famous for his role of Oddjob, a brutish bad guy in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

Tiger had his own restaurant and made excellent Teriyaki chicken and rice at a reasonable price. He was also good at clearing out entire parking lots of juvenile or dubious loiterers. The fellow had a bokken, a wooden practice sword. During breaks from preparing or serving food, he would casually go outside and then swing the bokken with fierce concentration. Sometimes there were people hanging around with no real business there. After a brief Tiger exhibition, the lot tended to be clear again.

When Tiger prepared a meal, the food did not smoke. There was no MSG or excess sugar. The Teriyaki chicken was prepared in electric cookers with water and sauce at a moderate temperature. Rice was made in an electric rice cooker with water, and then modestly heated on the stove top if additional vegetables or meat was added. He would have sashimi (刺身), or raw fish served with ginger slices on occasion. Fresh fruit was offered for dessert. Orange cantaloupe and green melon pieces were common. Tiger regularly enjoyed steak tartare, raw ground beef with vinegar, and a Japanese beer. While he did not have the largest menu, the food was of good quality with typical delicate Japanese flavors. College students liked his affordable lunch time mini buffet. Tiger was always cheerful to customers.

Today, some larger Asian establishments have an amazing variety of foods in the form of mega buffets. These are often all-you-can-eat for one price affairs. There can be endless vegetable, beef, chicken, pork, and seafood dishes. They may have sashimi or sushi. Salads and fruits abound. Some have incorporated deep-fried french fries, fish, and chicken along with the egg rolls. Microwaved pizza is there, too. Desserts include self-serve vanilla and chocolate ice cream from a machine or bin, cookies, cakes, pies, and pastries. You may even find fried doughnuts. Among all this, patterns emerge.

The first thing I learned along with others was to find MSG free restaurants to avoid headaches. The next factor regarded spinal and body aches. Following a meal, I was fine until eating certain dishes from some places. If I cooked the food at home using water, a steam fry, or ate raw vegetables or quality oven baked egg rolls at modest temperature, all was OK. If I ate out where they had stir-fried food and deep-fried egg rolls with hot oil, things were not OK. Inflammation and pain followed. What is going on?

The oils can get overheated to the smoking point or even burst into flame when stir-frying. Deep frying also poses hazards. These methods of cooking can affect the chemical structure of oils plus foods. Trans fats can be produced. The oils are oxidized as they react with oxygen, forming an ROS or Reactive Oxygen Species. A pro-inflammatory state and lowered immune functioning may result. In our bodies, ROS can be made with cellular processes in limited amounts. Antioxidants such as Vitamins E and C help to counter this. The amount of antioxidants should be kept high and ROS low for health. Research indicates high heat frying is not a stomach, intestinal, heart, or cardiovascular healthy situation. My experiences included joint and muscle aches.

What does the research say? It covers many areas of health. A list of studies is included in the Works Consulted section. We have in brief:

1. MSG - shown to instigate headaches and be inflammatory itself.

"A single intake of monosodium glutamate (MSG) may cause headache and increased muscle sensitivity." - Aikiko Shimada, et al.

Suppose we eat MSG free high heat wok cooking or fried food. We are left with:

2. ROS - Reactive Oxygen Species and Trans fats formed in the overheated or smoking oil, and especially in fried meat, are of concern. The oils are often reused when frying. These can increase inflammation which can affect muscles, joints, blood vessels and blood pressure, the heart, immune system, gut health, and can be be aging and carcinogenic. There is even research showing something potentially distressing for teens - more acne.

"The majority of discarded oil from fast food restaurants were overdegraded containing hazardous secondary oxidative products" - Fatemeh Esfarjani, et al.

3. Smoke inhalation from cooking. According to research, this is correlated with lung illness and cancer.

"Cooking oil fumes (COFs) contain many carcinogens...Chinese food chefs had an increased risk of cancer and lung cancer, particularly in females." - Pei Chen Lin, et al, with a large significant study of more than 350,000 people.

4. Arsenic and mercury are present in rice and fish to a greater degree than we were formerly aware.

"Fish was the major contributor to dietary mercury and total arsenic intake, whereas rice was the major contributor to inorganic arsenic dietary intake." - Hiroshi Awata, et al.

The absolute worst thing to do is take a low temperature oil such as olive oil and heat it to the smoking point. It is better straight from the bottle on a salad. Many restaurants traditionally used peanut oil for stir-frying although some may have vegetable oil mixes including palm, cottonseed, or soy. In addition, chemical preservatives are frequently added to oils.

When I prepare my own food with water or lightly sauteed with butter on low heat, the postprandial pain never appears. Staying with this approach yields benefits. Some people go through life simply eating and accepting inflammation as inevitable. Perhaps it is not. By understanding the process, it may be that we can prepare healthy, tasty foods and feel good. Has your spine ever been stir-fried?

Works Consulted

Awata, Hiroshi et al. “Association of Dietary Intake and Biomarker Levels of Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury among Asian Populations in the United States: NHANES 2011-2012.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 125,3. 2017. 314-323.

Bishop, Karen S, et al. “An investigation into the association between DNA damage and dietary fatty acid in men with prostate cancer.” Nutrients. Vol. 7,1. 2015. 405-22.

Budilarto, Elizabeth S, and Afaf Kamal-Eldin. “The supramolecular chemistry of lipid oxidation and antioxidation in bulk oils.” European Journal of Lipid Sience and Technology. Vol. 117,8. 2015. 1095-1137.

Butler, Lesley M, et al. “Fried meat intake is a risk factor for lung adenocarcinoma in a prospective cohort of Chinese men and women in Singapore.” Carcinogenesis. Vol. 34,8. 2013. 1794-9.

Cammack, Mark. "Mercury Toxicity: A Cause for Concern In Sports & Health." 2004. Retrieved from

Davies, Joanna MS, et al. “The Oxygen Paradox, the French Paradox, and age-related diseases.” GeroScience. Vol. 39,5-6. 2017. 499-550.

Esfarjani, Fatemeh, et al. “Evaluating the rancidity and quality of discarded oils in fast food restaurants.” Food Science & Nutrition. Vol. 7,7. 6 Jun. 2019. 2302-2311.

Hamza, Reham Z, and Mohammad S Al-Harbi. “Monosodium glutamate induced testicular toxicity and the possible ameliorative role of vitamin E or selenium in male rats.” Toxicology Reports. Vol. 1. 22 Oct. 2014. 1037-1045.

Hecht, Stephen S, et al. “Elevated levels of volatile organic carcinogen and toxicant biomarkers in Chinese women who regularly cook at home.” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology. Vol. 19,5. 2010. 1185-92.

Hirata, Yusuke, et al. “Trans-Fatty acids promote proinflammatory signaling and cell death by stimulating the apoptosis signal-regulating kinase 1 (ASK1)-p38 pathway.” The Journal of Biological Chemistry. Vol. 292,20. 2017. 8174-8185.

Juntarawijit, Chudchawal, and Yuwayong Juntarawijit. “Cooking smoke and respiratory symptoms of restaurant workers in Thailand.” BMC Pulmonary Medicine. Vol. 17,1. 17 Feb. 2017. 41.

Lin, Pei-Chen, et al. “Gender differences and lung cancer risk in occupational chefs: analyzing more than 350,000 chefs in Taiwan, 1984-2011.” International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. Vol. 92,1. 2019. 101-109.

Melnik, Bodo C. “Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update.” Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. Vol. 8. 15 Jul. 2015. 371-88.

Sharma, Amod. “Monosodium glutamate-induced oxidative kidney damage and possible mechanisms: a mini-review.” Journal of Biomedical Science. Vol. 22,93. 22 Oct. 2015.

Shimada, Aikiko, et al. "Headache and mechanical sensitization of human pericranial muscles after repeated intake of monosodium glutamate (MSG)." The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2013. 14:2.

Zhou, Zhongkai et al. “Deep-fried oil consumption in rats impairs glycerolipid metabolism, gut histology and microbiota structure.” Lipids in Health and Disease. Vol. 15. 28 Apr. 2016. 86.

Films Referenced

Goldfinger. Directed by Guy Hamilton. Performances by Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe, Shirley Eaton, Harold Sakata, Burt Kwouk. United Artists. 1964.


Trans Fat Inferno: Hot Wok Food is a derived work © Copyright 2019 Mark Cammack. All rights reserved.

It is based on the following public domain works:

chef: Dan Truong

© Copyright 2019 Mark Cammack. All rights reserved.