Are Spices the Key to Safer Barbecuing?

Ah yes, summer is upon us and the backyard barbecue is blazing away.

There's all those burgers, half-cooked and loaded with potentially deadly organisms. Or burned to a crisp and coated with chemicals that can cause cancer.

Enjoy.

But wait a minute. Is that great symbol of the American good life killing us? Or is throwing meat on the grill any more dangerous than cooking it in the kitchen?

Relax, says Scott Smith, a food chemistry professor at Kansas State University. It's not where you cook it. It's how. If you cook with too much heat, you're going to produce carcinogens. If you don't have enough heat, you're going to allow harmful bacteria to survive the cooking process.

You get the same results whether you cook it on the backyard barbecue, or in the kitchen. It's the heat that makes the difference, regardless of the source.

Spicy Solutions?

And these days it seems that every chef has his or her own cookbook out, lavishing praise on various spices. But are some of those spices helping? Or are they making the meal less healthy?

If you pick the right ones, they may actually be helping you avoid cancer, Smith says.

For years now, Smith has been studying certain carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines. Known as HCAs, these compounds are produced by cooking protein-rich muscle foods, and they have been linked to various cancers.

Smith is particularly intrigued with rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage. All those spices -- especially rosemary -- are loaded with antioxidants.

"Rosemary seems to be the one that has the most,'' Smith says, "but some others also have quite a few."

That's significant, he says, because antioxidants inhibit the formation of carcinogens by blocking the chemical reaction that produces HCAs.

Exacting Extraction

After chatting with Smith, I chopped up some fresh rosemary and dumped it on a burger as it blazed away on my backyard grill. Yuk. All I tasted was the rosemary, and therein lies a problem. Some compounds in rosemary are extremely volatile, thus explaining its pungent aroma, and they overwhelm the flavor of just about anything.

But here's the good news. Those volatile compounds aren't the ones with the goodies in them. The non-volatile compounds in rosemary and other spices are what's important here.

"These compounds are not very volatile, and you won't even smell them," Smith says. "They are the ones with the antioxidants that actually do the inhibiting."

A few companies, and researchers like Smith, are trying to figure out the best way to extract those helpful antioxidants so they can be added to sauces without overwhelming the food. But as yet, he says, you can't go to the grocery store and buy a can full of antioxidants that doesn't smell like rosemary.

Careful Cookouts

But that doesn't mean you can't do a lot to protect yourself.

As we noted, it's not where you cook the burger that counts, it's how. It takes higher temperatures, well above 300 degrees, for the carcinogenic compounds to form. So if you burn your burger on a grill, or fry it on the kitchen stove, you're going to get the same results if the heat is too high, Smith says. You're going to get an all-American meal loaded with stuff you shouldn't eat.

However, for some time now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been warning us that under-cooking, not over-cooking, may be the most dangerous. Especially when it comes to hamburger.

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