June 1, 2009 Warm weather brings on the seasonal meat favorites that are barbecued, grilled, broiled or fried. That also means more potential exposure to carcinogenic compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs). There’s a way to reduce the risk significantly by just adding some spices – rosemary extracts or Thai spices.
“Just one of the spices would work,” said J. Scott Smith, a Kansas State University food chemistry professor who researched the issue for the Food Safety Consortium. “Rosemary would be fine or one of the Thai spices would be fine.”
The numbers from Smith’s research tell the story. Some commercial rosemary extracts can inhibit the formation of HCAs in cooked beef patties by 61 to 79 percent. Thai spices can inhibit the formation by about 40 to 43 percent. The key is the level of antioxidants present in each, and Thai spices have lower levels than rosemary.
A discerning consumer wondering which to use need rely only on personal taste.
“What it boils down to in a lot of the cases is preference as far as the flavor,” Smith said. “For example, cinnamon is also very good but some people don’t like it. Some people don’t like rosemary. Some of these Thai spices are unique and there would be ones in colors that people would want to use more than a rosemary or cinnamon or other products.”
Inhibiting HCAs in cooked meat products is an important step in food safety. Smith’s additional research has found that HCA levels increase as charring increases on meat skin and the moisture content decreases. The numbers vary on different meats after cooking. Bacon and rotisserie chicken had the highest HCA levels with deli meats and hot dogs showing the lowest. Chicken skin and breast meat had all five of the HCA types.
The skin of rotisserie chicken that is sold in grocery stores as precooked roasted products often has some burnt, crusty areas on it with high HCA levels. Fortunately, Smith noted, most people don’t eat those parts.
“We’re trying to evaluate these levels based on the way the consumer would eat the product,” Smith said. “We just looked at different products that consumers are consuming. We really didn’t have good data on it, so we took a look at it to see what the actual risk would be.”
Few consumers are aware that rosemary and Thai spices provide reliable ways to reduce risk from HCAs in cooked meat. Smith believes the industry should market the products to increase awareness. For now, the word is mostly on the Internet. The herbs and spices industry haven’t put the word out significantly.
Although the situation isn’t related to HCAs, Smith recalled when cocoa was found to contain beneficial antioxidants, just as rosemary and Thai spices do. The chocolate industry began promoting that aspect. “It took awhile to catch on,” Smith said about the availability of dark chocolate. “For awhile you really couldn’t buy much of it. It just wasn’t available here in the United States. You had to go to get it in Europe. Now you can get dark chocolate all over the place.”
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