Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making food safer, in a cool way

These days, buying food can seem a little like a game of Russian Roulette. (First spinach, now peanut butter! What's next?) And the follow-up TV and newspaper articles on the flaws in our food growing, processing and delivery system should make everyone want to have their own gardens.

Well, on the better-news front, the Agricultural Research Service (a part of the USDA) is hard at work trying to find solutions, at least for fresh food. And they're looking into some really cool ideas.

They are making "edible films" from pureed fruits and vegetables and exploring ways to incorporate bacteria-fighting compounds into them. One of the most promising antibacterials comes from an active compound in the herb oregano, called carvacrol, which has been found to have significant antimicrobial powers.

Minute amounts of carvacrol could be added to an edible film made from spinach, let's say. A small square of this film could then be slipped into a package of fresh spinach where it would release protective vapors to protect the spinach against pathogens (possibly including E. coli). The vapors could even find their way into the crinkles and folds of a spinach leaf.

In addition to oregano, researchers have also found the essential oils in the following herbs/spices to be effective against E. coli: (in order of effectiveness, with oregano leading the list): thyme, cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, lemongrass and allspice.

To read more about it, check out the full article on the ARS site.

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