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You know smoking is bad, but about smoked meats?

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

We all know by now that smoking cigarettes can cause cancer and a host of other health ailments, but few extend that thinking to smoked meats. After all, we are not inhaling smoke it is just flavoring the meat, right?

One of America’s favorite summer pastimes is to fire up the grill. Even in winter, when snow keeps us off our patios and away from the barbecue many people go to restaurants offering meals featuring that signature smoky flavor. Unfortunately, that flavor comes with added chemicals that can be detrimental to our health.

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Why is smoked meat dangerous?

Turns out, when meat is cooked with extremely high heat, such as over an open flame with combusting wood, gas, or charcoal as accelerates, chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are produced. Exposure to these chemicals has caused cancer in lab animals and occupational exposure to PAHs has been linked to cancer in humans. When PAHs are mixed with nitrogen, an element found in meat products, nitrated PAHs, or NPAHs, form, which are even more carcinogenic than PAHs.

Studies going back to the 1960s show a statistical correlation between frequent consumption of smoked foods and cancers of the intestinal tract. A 10 year study published in 1980 evaluated a district in Hungary where predominantly home-smoked meats were consumed. When comparing this districts rate of stomach cancer to the rest of the country, the districts occurrence of stomach cancer were were nearly twice as high. More recent studies are even beginning to link smoked meat and meat cooked with high temperatures to cancers both inside and outside the gastrointestinal tract.

So grilling and smoking foods is not the healthiest way to cook . . . then what is safe?

It is well known that fried food in general is not healthy due to the high fat content and the, more often than not, genetically modified oil used in the process. In fact, frying bacon also produces significantly high levels of PAHs. (Sorry, bacon lovers). An Iranian study found people who develop gastrointestinal cancers are more likely to have a diet high in fried foods.

Any method that uses high heat has the potential to develop carcinogenic chemicals as well as break down nutrients. For both meats and vegetables, it is safest to boil, broil, steam, poach, bake, or stir-fry on medium or low heat. Keep in mind that red meat needs to be cooked to at least 160 degrees in order to kill harmful bacteria like E.coli, but temperatures should not be high enough to char or burn the meat.

Should you stop eating smoked meat?

So far, researchers, like those studying the connection between kidney cancer and the effect of meat-cooking mutations at MD Anderson in Texas and the International Agency of Research into Cancer (IARC) who labeled processed meat and red meat as a “probably carcinogenic,” say people should not stop eating meat, and instead preach moderation. However, considering the fact that about 50 years ago the same irresolute opinion was connected to the risk of smoking cigarettes, I’d say these early warning signs are worth heeding by avoiding entirely or severely restricting consumption of red and processed meats, especially those that are smoked, fried, or cooked with high temperatures.

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