Smoked beef in a burger

Smoked foods rendered healthier and tastier using car filter

Image credit: Dreamstime

Inspired by techniques used in the automotive industry, researchers have developed a healthier method for smoking foods which is said to result in a superior smoky flavour.

Smoking foods – infusing them with smoke from burning or smouldering material – results in delicious new flavours, but can also contaminate them with harmful carcinogens.

“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. If we could produce a smoke with fewer carcinogens, but that still has the same great taste, that would be ideal,” said Dr Jane Parker, manager of The Flavour Centre at the University of Reading.

In order to achieve the same smoky flavour while reducing the potential harm of these foods, Parker experimented with running the smoke through a zeolite filter before exposing the food to it. These filters are used in the automotive industry to remove harmful pollutants produced in the engine, as well as to remove ammonia from aquariums and swimming pools.

“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,” said Parker. “We want to change that.”

Parker worked with engineers from a smoking company, Besmoke, to optimise zeolite filters for the removal of a type of carcinogen – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – which is well known to be associated with increased risk of cancer, as well as heart disease. The researchers were able to develop a filter capable of removing 93 per cent of a known carcinogen; the best effective known method so far for removing carcinogens from smoke.

Next, the researchers tried smoking tomato flakes, coconut oil and water using both filtered and unfiltered smoke, and adding these smoked substances to cream cheese and chicken. A panel of expert tasters declared the filtered smoked foods the tastiest, commenting that the chicken had a “Christmas ham” aroma and a more rounded and balanced flavour, while the foods made with unfiltered smoke tasted more like ash tray and acrid smoke.

The team used mass spectrometry to analyse the compounds in the filtered and unfiltered smoke, and noticed larger molecules in the unfiltered smoke. It is possible, they say, that these chemicals are responsible for the ashy, acrid flavour of the unfiltered smoked foods.

“We think there is interesting science at work,” said Parker. “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.”

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