Last updated March 21, 2018 at 3:35 pm
Researchers have taken inspiration from the automobile industry to create healthier, tastier smoked food.
If you want one of the best tasting bits of meat you’ll ever eat, smoking is totally the way to go.
Cooked low and slow, infusing the delicious delicate flavours from the wood smoke, and coming out juicy with that red ring of perfection, there’s no doubting smoke makes meat sing. Get some veggies in there as well and you’re on your way to flavour heaven.
However, unfortunately, that process can sometimes lead to the meat containing carcinogens – cancer causing substances. Usually the volumes involved mean it’s a minor concern, if any at all. And yet, in an effort to remove any worries whatsoever, UK scientists have taken a lesson from the automobile industry and created a filter to remove harmful compounds.
There was an additional unexpected bonus – it also resulted in an even tastier smoke flavour.
Combining cooking and cars to create carcinogen-free cuisine
“The smoking process can cause carcinogens to form in foods. Not all smoked foods are dangerous, but we do know most can contain low levels of these substances, so we should try to remove them,” said Jane Parker from the University of Reading.
“If we could produce a smoke with fewer carcinogens, but that still has the same great taste, that would be ideal.”
The researchers teamed up with a company which specialise in natural smoking, and then took inspiration from the car industry to develop a range of air filters made from zeolite. This porous aluminosilicate mineral is used in car exhausts to remove carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a ubiquitous side product of fuel consumption, and long known to increase the risk for a variety of cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease.
“Zeolite filters, which are put in a tailpipe, have been used in the car industry to reduce environmental pollutants, but they haven’t been applied to food yet. We want to change that,” said Parker.
The filters were so effective the team removed 93 percent of the carcinogenic chemical benzo[a]pyrene from the smoke.
“There have been a couple of attempts to reduce carcinogens in smoke using other technologies, but they aren’t as effective as our approach,” Parker said.
Cleaner food is tastier
However, the worry was that the filtered smoke could also mean removing some of the flavour.
To answer this question, the researchers bought in the experts – a panel of tasters able to accurately describe the flavours they were experiencing.
The researchers smoked tomato flakes, coconut oil and water using either filtered or unfiltered smoke. Then, they added the smoked tomato flakes to cream cheese and used the water to brine chicken before cooking.
And the results spoke for themselves.
“To the tasters, the chicken made with filtered smoke had a bit of a ‘Christmas ham’ aroma and a more rounded balanced flavour,” Parker said. Foods made with the unfiltered smoke, by contrast, tended to score higher in the categories of “ash tray” and “acrid smoke.”
Why the difference in flavours? To find out, the researchers used mass spectrometry to find out what compounds were in each smoke sample.
“The profiles showed that it was largely the higher molecular weight components that were being removed by the filter,” according to Parker.
“These chemicals may be the ones giving the foods a harsher flavour and aroma profile.”
Using this finding, Parker and her team hope to further refine the filters to improve their specificity and effectiveness.
“We think there is interesting science at work. If we can figure out how the higher molecular weight compounds are sticking to the filter, we can manipulate the zeolite to improve the removal efficiency.”
While you shouldn’t necessarily be overly concerned about smoked meats or foods at the moment (you only live once right?), the promise of healthier and tastier smoked foods in the future is something we should all look forward to.
We’re already salivating at the thought of an even better tasting slab of perfectly smoked brisket in our future.
The research has been presented at the American Chemical Society 255th National Meeting