A pair of college students has discovered traditional Texas cuisine can be used to fight foodborne illnesses.
According to research presented at last week's Texas Academy of Science meeting, a common strain of salmonella can't stand up to chili powder or certain barbecue marinades -- at least when tested in the lab.
An associate professor of biological sciences at St. Edward's University in Austin, who advised the two students, says the findings could eventually be used to develop consumer products.
"Oh, absolutely," Patricia Baynham says.
Carlos Mendoza was inspired to investigate whether chili powder had anti-microbal properties after learning cinnamon oil has been shown to inhibit bacterial growth.
"He grew up in the Valley, and they have fruit with chili powder because it tastes good," says Baynham, who admits she didn't care for a chili-powdered pineapple slice one of her students shared with her. "Carlos would prefer the taste of chili to the taste of cinnamon, so his idea was to come up with a fruit wash."
Since it's easier to work with essential oil than powder, Mendoza dipped contaminated strawberries in a chili seed solution. The bath reduced the bacteria by only five percent, but stopped the bacteria from growing.
"So, in the lab, the chili seed essential oil is completely effective," Baynham explains.
J. Taylor Gabriel also tackled Salmonella enterica. Gabriel had seen citric acids used in brines as preservatives, but wondered whether they'd work as bacteria killers if added to barbecue sauce. Gabriel found tartaric acid reduced the amount of bacteria in his contaminated chicken by 90 percent.
"It was really effective," Baynham says.
Both research projects were funded by the USDA; Baynham predicts more science students will choose food safety subjects in coming years.
"With the increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, food safety is a big focus area," she says.
But that doesn't mean science fairs will become buffets. Neither of the students served food to accompany their presentations.
"These people contaminated their food, so none of it was eaten," Baynham says.