Strange inspiration: Researchers use tip from auto industry to make smoked foods tastier, more environment-friendly

If you love smoked foods, you’re probably aware that aside from the delicate flavors associated with it, this method of cooking and flavoring food is often linked to cancer-causing compounds.

To address this concern, a group of researchers has turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: the automobile industry. Experts have tried running the smoke through a zeolite filter to minimize the harmful compounds that smoked food is often exposed to.

The unique approach to smoking foods even had a surprising bonus: an improved smoked flavor.

Dr. Jane K. Parker, the leader of the study from the University of Reading in the U.K., said that smoking food may sometimes cause carcinogens to form the final product. She did note that while not all smoked foods contain carcinogens, a lot of them have low levels of the substances and that it is important to minimize these levels whenever possible.

Zeolite filters and smoked food

Dr. Parker mused that the best case scenario would be figuring out a way to smoke food with fewer carcinogens while also producing nuanced flavors. She added that they looked into the use of zeolite filters, which are usually included in a tailpipe.

In the car industry, zeolite filters are used to minimize environmental pollutants. However, this is the first time that the filters have been used for a food-related application.

For the study, engineers from Besmoke, a company that offers various naturally smoked products, collaborated with Dr. Parker.

The research team developed filters made from zeolite, a “porous aluminosilicate mineral.” Dr. Parker et al. worked with zeolite to create filters that can remove most, if not all, of carcinogenic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the smoke.

Unfortunately, fuel consumption produces PAHs, which are known to increase the risk for various kinds of cancers and cardiovascular disease. The U.S. and European Union closely monitor the environmental levels of PAHs. (Related: Processed meats or cigarettes – which gives you cancer more quickly?)

Based on the results of the study, the most efficient zeolite filter that the research team worked on was able to remove a whopping 93 percent of benzo[a]pyrene, a confirmed carcinogen.

Dr. Parker commented that despite earlier attempts to minimize carcinogens in smoke through other technologies, these weren’t as effective as the zeolite filters. Once the filters were developed, Dr. Parker and the Besmoke researchers tested the difference between flavors when the food was exposed to filtered and unfiltered smoke.

The research team then smoked coconut oil, tomato flakes, and water using either filtered or unfiltered smoke. The scientists added the smoked tomato flakes to cream cheese while the water was used to brine some chicken.

Expert tasters were brought in and using their training to “describe differences in flavor profiles with standard terminology,” the panel sampled the chicken, coconut oil, and cream cheese. According to the tasters, the chicken made with filtered smoke smelled a little bit like Christmas ham and that it had a more rounded balanced flavor.

Meanwhile, the foods made with unfiltered smoke often had high markers for the categories of “ash tray” and “acrid smoke.”

The research team then examined why the food made with filtered smoke tasted better by studying how the filtering influenced their chemical content. Using mass spectrometry, the researchers analyzed the compounds of the types of smoke.

Dr. Parker said that based on the profiles, the filter helped remove most of the higher molecular weight components which could be the reason why the foods featured “a harsher flavor and aroma profile.” She continued that further study can help the research team determine a way to improve the eco-friendly food smoking method.

Dr. Parker concluded that finding out how the higher molecular weight compounds are sticking to the filter can help them develop a way of using the zeolite to remove more of the carcinogenic chemicals in smoked foods.

Fast facts on food smoking

  • Food smoking is an old method of preserving food that uses wood smoke.
  • When humans began farming, food smoking was one of the food preservation methods for farmed meats that considerably extended shelf life. Smokehouses then started appearing on farms. However, the smokehouses were built slightly apart from the main building to minimize exposure to the smoke and the fire risk.
  • Smoked food often includes cheese, fish, meat, and sausages but it can also include eggs, nuts, and vegetables.

You can learn more about carcinogens and other causes of cancer at

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