Smoking is one of the oldest methods of cooking and preserving meat. However, this practice wasn’t common among Europeans until they began settling in the Americas in the 1700s. After observing the Native Americans and various people groups in the West Indies, colonizers created their own technique and called it barbecue. Today, there are many different smoking methods, including rapid hot smoking, cold smoking and slow hot smoking.
However, even the oldest techniques and traditions can be unhealthy. As delicious as smoked meats can be, it’s important to understand the health implications before chowing down on beef brisket or those burnt ends.
Risky Red Meat
Nutritionists and scientists have spent years debating the health risks of eating red meat. Does a big juicy steak cause cancer or is it safe to indulge in a filet from time to time? So far, the research is mixed and there’s still no definitive answer. However, we do know that red meat does contain important nutrients and there is some evidence to suggest that eating too much too often can raise your risk of certain cancers.
Still, your risk of developing cancer or other health issues depends on various factors like what type of food the animal ate, where it came from, the temperature at which you cooked it and how much of it you consume on a regular basis. For example, grain-fed beef contains more monounsaturated fat than grass-fed cows, thereby upping your risk of heart disease down the road.
HCAs And PAHs
In most cases, boiling, steaming and baking are some of the safest ways to cook meat. However, methods like smoking and grilling do raise some concerns. When you grill meat over an open flame or a heated surface, the juices that drip into the flames can cause smoke that contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These chemicals are mutagenic and can cause DNA changes that may increase the risk of cancer.
Frying or grilling meats, including poultry and fish, can also form heterocyclic amines, which have the potential to be just as harmful. However, scientists haven’t found significant amounts of HCAs in meats cooked at low temperatures. Thus, when it comes to smoked meat, PAHs are the only chemicals you might want to worry about unless you’re using a technique like rapid hot smoking.
The type of wood you use to smoke your meat can also affect PAH levels. Most people use hardwood or wood chunks, which come in a variety of flavors and don’t contain much resin. However, softwoods like pine, fir, spruce and cedar contain more resin, which transfers to your meat in the form of PAHs. Therefore, hardwoods are your safest and healthiest option if you do choose to make smoked meats.
Of course, eating anything that’s come into contact with smoke, ash and other pollutants comes with a certain amount of risk. Even if you’re using hardwood pellets and low temperatures, most smoked meat will still contain low levels of PAHs and HCAs. However, if you believe the delicious taste of smoked meat is worth the potential risk of breast or colon cancer, there are ways to minimize that risk and get back to your BBQ.
A few years ago, researchers discovered they could use zeolite filters to maximize the removal of PAHs and other chemicals from smoke. The best filter they developed removed up to 93% of benzopyrene and actually added a more rounded, balanced flavor to the meat. Scientists and meat lovers hope to manipulate the zeolite filter to further improve the removal efficiency and minimize risk in the future.
Everything In Moderation
If you’re still worried about eating smoked meats but don’t want to give them up entirely, just practice a little moderation. Cut back on smoked meat consumption and fill up on fresh fruits and vegetables instead. Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet will do more than any filter or cooking method ever will, so eat smart and take care of yourself.
Emily is a freelance writer, covering conservation and sustainability. You can read her blog, Conservation Folks, for more of her work.