The Buzz: Smoking Food

What’s the buzz?  

Using barbecue smokers is all the buzz when it comes to preparing meats, and even vegetables. But let’s step back from the brisket and ask: are foods cooked in a smoker harmful to health? 

What does the science say?  

Smoking foods originated thousands of years ago when it was discovered meat that was hung to dry in smoke-filled caves was not only preserved — but also had a unique flavor. Fast forward to today and smoked foods are cooked in modern barbecue smokers that work by placing foods — most often meats, but also vegetables — on a rack in a separate chamber from a hardwood fire. The smoke from the fire is trapped inside and the combination of heat and smoke cooks the food over the course of hours (or even days), in contrast with traditional grilling which cooks food by direct high heat over an open flame. 

Cooking foods at high temperatures and for extended periods of time causes the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) compounds, something that both grilling and smoking cooking methods have in common. HCAs are formed when amino acids react at high temperatures and cause the proteins to change. PAHs are formed from the fat and juices that drip down into the fire or onto the hot metal of the smoker — causing flames and PAH-containing smoke. These compounds stick to the surface of the food and are then ingested after cooking. Studies have shown that there are higher levels of PAHs in samples of smoked animal proteins compared to grilling. 

So, what does that mean for your health? Research has shown that HCAs and PAHs have been found to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, studies with rodents that were fed HCAs and PAHs developed tumors; however, it is important to note that the concentrations of these compounds given to the rodents were extremely high, much higher than would be consumed in a typical human’s diet. 

In addition, red meats and processed meats are most often the foods being cooked through the smoking process. The American Cancer Society recommends avoiding or limiting consumption of these foods (no matter the cooking method), as overconsumption of red and processed meats has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes, as well as increased chance of developing colorectal cancer. 


What’s the takeaway?  

There are currently no recommendations to stop consuming smoked foods, as more research is needed. Even though there are no specific guidelines for HCA and PAH consumption, there are ways to reduce the amount of these compounds in your foods. Smoking meat less often, using leaner cuts of meat when smoking, and avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open fire will reduce your exposure to HCA and PAH in foods. Charred portions of meat can also be removed prior to consumption, as well as not consuming the juices produced from meat drippings cooked in smokers.  

Want to avoid these compounds altogether? Go plant-based as grilling any form of vegetables and/or other plant-based foods doesn’t produce any detectable levels of these compounds! Check out our plant-forward grilling tips for a plant-filled summer cookout. 

To learn more, check out Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk  

Check out our article to find out more about The Dark Side of Grilling