New Computer Model Aids Pan-Fried Meat Patty Study

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Who knew there was a science to flipping burgers?

A new study at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has created a computer model of a two-year-old study of pan-fried meat patties, allowing the simulation of many different cooking conditions.

These new models were recently published in the May 2002 issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology.

The original study, also done at the Livermore lab, discovered that how often burgers are flipped may determine the safety of the burger.

Ngoc Tran, an undergraduate student intern, and Michael Colvin, a computational biologist, recently explained the results obtained by Livermore lab scientists Mark Knize and Cynthia Salmon's original results by performing simulations of heat transfer during flipping.

"We are investigating causes of cancer in ordinary people," Knize said. "A biologically-plausible hypothesis is that the heterocyclic amines sometimes formed in well-done meat are involved. These compounds are potent mutagens and animal carcinogens."

Carcinogens are chemical agents that are known to cause cancer, and mutagens interact with DNA to cause genetic mutations. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) have been found to cause cancer in animals and mutations in bacteria.

Ngoc Tran

Tran said that, while the flipping is important, it is important to maintain a specific balance when pan-frying.

"If you were to cook it in the microwave, you would have a minimal amount of food mutagen formation, but it would taste pretty bad," she said. "Try not to overcook it, to keep HCA levels low. If you undercook, you have to worry about the presence of E. coli."

Initially, the first experiments were performed physically in the laboratory. The meat patties were either flipped only once while cooking or flipped every minute until done.

They were then tested for levels of bacteria and heterocyclic amines in order to compare them. This research was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, two years ago.

"Our interest here was to determine the best cooking conditions for minimizing the formation of HCAs, which would still be adequate to kill the bacteria that may be present," Salmon said. "It is vitally important that all meats, and particularly ground meats, are cooked well enough to eliminate any potential pathogens."

Eliminating the bacteria proved to be very simple. This was done by waiting until the internal temperature of the hamburger patty reached 60 to 70 degrees Celsius. According to Salmon, in food poisoning cases, either the meat is usually seriously undercooked or just handled very irresponsibly.

"The frequency of flipping the hamburger made such a difference in the formation of HCAs," said Salmon. "It did not seem intuitive that it would make any difference, but it did. In testing different flipping rates, we found that the burgers that were flipped more frequently, once per minute, formed significantly lower levels of HCAs."

To take the study a step further, Tran and Colvin used computer modeling to simulate these experimental results.

The researchers' measurements, which were compared to the original experimental results, recognized an interesting discrepancy. It was first believed that mutagen levels were mostly related to the heating process. The results proved otherwise.

"If you do just a simulation of the heating and flipping, you don't get nearly as big a reduction in mutagens as found experimentally," Colvin said.

Since heat flow is not the only factor affecting HCA levels, Colvin said, the outer layer of the burger, with the highest mutagen concentration, is scraped off when the spatula is slid under the patty.

Colvin believes HCA reduction may also be due to the juices that are lost in the flipping process.

"If you do this simple thing," Colvin said. "Flip the hamburger every minute. It doesn't affect the cooking time or taste of the meat in any significant way. But it will allow 10-fold and sometimes 100-fold reductions in mutagens."


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