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Love smoked meat? Scientists figured out how to make it better

Whether it’s meat, cheese or, heck, just about any other foodstuff, we are suckers when it comes to smoked food. There is a problem, though: The food-smoking process may add some delicious new flavors, but it also causes carcinogens, aka substances capable of causing cancer in living tissue. That’s something that no amount of tasty food is worth.

Fortunately, researchers from the U.K.’s University of Reading borrowed an insight from the automotive industry to come up with a solution. Presented this week at the 255th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), their approach involves running smoke through a zeolite filter, a porous aluminosilicate mineral which has been shown to be a promising method for purifying car exhaust gases. This filter helped remove up to 93 percent of benzo[a]pyrene, a known carcinogen in smoke.

“The smoking process can cause carcinogens to form in foods,” Dr. Jane Parker, one of the researchers on the project, said in a statement. “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. 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.”

Reducing the number of carcinogens in smoke is good news. Almost as exciting, however, is the impact that the filter has on the taste of the finished smoked foods: It actually improves it. According to the researchers, using a zeolite filter to remove harmful compounds in the smoke gave the finished food a superior smokey flavor.

When a panel of expert tasters tried out food prepared with the new, improved smoking technique, they agreed that the filtered smoke resulted in a more rounded, balanced flavor — described as offering a similar aroma to a “Christmas ham.” Foods made using the traditional unfiltered smoke were meanwhile more likely to score higher in categories like “ashtray” and “acrid smoke.” One theory for the taste difference is that the zeolite filter is filtering out the smoke’s larger molecules, which may be the ones giving some smoked food their harsher flavors and smell.

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