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UA research: Oregano oil may counter carcinogens

The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

12-21-10

Dec. 21--When you salt and pepper your meat for flavor, you might want to shake on a little oregano for health reasons, a University of Arizona researcher says.

Food microbiologist Sadhana Ravishankar has found the oil from the herb can fight dangerous bacteria and compounds that can cause cancer.

The Idea

Ravishankar got interested in food safety after the 1993 E. coli outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed four children who ate at Jack in the Box restaurants.

Now her lab at the UA focuses on ways to control foodborne bacteria.

She has been studying carvacrol, a beige-colored oil that smells strongly of oregano.

Other researchers found it to be effective against bacteria in lab media, and she wanted to take that research further and apply it to food safety.

"The idea that something in a plant can inactivate all this bacteria is very fascinating to me," Ravishankar said.

The Breakthrough

While testing carvacrol's anti-microbial properties in ground beef, Ravishankar discovered it potentially could also prevent cancer.

As raw meat heats up on the grill, amino acids and glucose form molecules that mix with creatinine in the muscle to form compounds that have the potential to cause cancer.

The higher the temperature, the higher the risk.

But Ravishankar was surprised to see that applying carvacrol to meat before grilling reduced the formation of the cancer-causing compounds by up to 78 percent.

"We did not have any idea about the anti-oxidative activity at all," she said. "We were pretty excited."

Her research was funded by the American Cancer Society through the Arizona Cancer Center, and her study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The Future

More testing is needed to figure out exactly how carvacrol reacts with the compounds in meat.

Ravishankar wants to do tests with fresh and dried oregano leaves in addition to the oil, and she wants to determine what concentration of the oil is needed to get good health results.

She also wants to test other plant extracts that have anti-oxidative and anti-microbial properties.

But it seems the future of food safety might include more tasty spices as a way to allow safer cooking with lower heat.

Did You Know

Last year the Arizona Cancer Center received 308 grants for cancer research, worth $74 million.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at [email protected] or 807-8012.

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