Nothing like the smell of smoked meats in the summer. If you’ve ever walked out and inhaled the aroma of a neighbor lighting up the wood-burning smoker, you know how appetizing the mere thought of such a meal can be, let alone taste.
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But stay away from the brisket and put the pork butt down, because there are some serious health issues you need to be aware of before planning your next feast. Dietitian Gillian Culbertson, Dt.P.goes to the heart of the problem.
What’s wrong with smoked meats?
In short, smoked meat is contaminated meat.
When you hear the term “contaminated food,” you may imagine clear signs of nastiness, such as a bad taste, foul smell, or strange color. But here’s the thing about smoked meats: the same process that makes them so good also contaminates them.
“Smoke itself is a source of contaminants that can be harmful,” says Culbertson. Harmful substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when meat is cooked at very high temperatures.
Although grilled and pan-fried meats can also lead to the formation of PAHs and HCAs, studies show that smoking leads to higher levels of contamination. During the smoking process, the smoke creates these substances and carries them to the surface of the meat.
“These compounds are created when fluids and fats drip from the meat onto the heat source and as a byproduct of the smoke,” Culbertson explains. “Aromatic rings form, creating these harmful compounds that are carried to the meat from the smoke.”
Does smoked meat cause cancer?
The National Cancer Institute warns that HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic, meaning they can cause changes in your DNA that put you at risk for certain types of cancer.
“High exposure to these compounds may lead to an increased risk of cancer of the intestinal tract, including colon and stomach cancer,” Culbertson says. “Some recent research also suggests that red and processed meats, including smoked meats, may increase your risk of Breast and prostate cancer.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meat – which includes smoked meat – as a Group 1 carcinogen based on evidence of its link to colorectal cancer. Red meat, they say, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (Remember that not all processed meat is red meat, and not all red meat is processed. But there may be some overlap, as in the case, for example, of smoked beef brisket .)
Other risks of eating too much smoked meat
Smoked, processed meats, and red meats have been linked to a higher risk of various health problems, including:
- Type 2 diabetes.
How Much Can You Eat Safely?
“Currently, there are no federal guidelines regarding the amount of foods containing PAHs and HCAs that are considered safe,” Culbertson says.
In general, however, the American Cancer Society recommended consume red and processed meats rarely, if at all. And the Mediterranean diet, considered one of the most heart-healthy diets, allows no more than one serving of red meat per week.
Are other smoked foods bad for you?
Bad news: it’s not just the meat. Smoked cheeses Was found to also contain these harmful PAHs. “The tests found PAHs inside the cheese, but they’re concentrated in the rind,” Culbertson says.
This does not mean that you will never be able to enjoy a smoked Gouda or Gruyere again. But keep your processed cheese intake to a minimum and cut that crust off before you dig in.
6 tips for smoking meat and staying healthy
The science is clear: smoked meat should be a very occasional indulgence, if at all. Culbertson shares some tips for making the healthiest choices possible for those times when you can’t resist the smoker’s siren song.
- Use hardwoods. “Home smokers should be careful to choose wood that does not contain resin, such as pine and other softwoods,” advises Culbertson. “The choice of fuel should only be hardwoods.”
- Prefer white meats. Although smoked chicken and turkey can still create HCAs and PAHs, they are, overall, healthier choices than red meat.
- Go lean. Next in line after poultry are lean cuts of pork (such as pork loin, tenderloin, and center-cut chops). If you must eat beef, choose lean cuts like flank, round, sirloin and tenderloin, and choose ground beef that is at least 90% lean. “The lean product is best because most of the toxic compounds are created by fat dripping onto the heat source,” Culbertson says.
- Do not smoke fish. In general, fish can be a very healthy food choice, but leave it out of your smokehouse. “Fish often has a higher level of contaminants due to more surface area and more intense smoking,” says Culbertson.
- Avoid burning. Sorry, but burnt ends are not your friend. Limit HCAs and PAHs in your smoked meats by not consuming overcooked or charred meat (intentionally or not).
- Find a compromise with liquid smoke. “Instead of smoking, try marinating meats with liquid smoke, then quickly turn on the grill or smoker for added flavor and effect,” Culbertson suggests.