Are Smoked Meats Bad for Your Health?

They’re classified as carcinogenic because of their link to cancer
Smoked roast beef is sliced on a cutting board.

There’s nothing like the smell of smoked meats in the summer. If you’ve ever stepped outside and breathed in the aroma of a neighbor firing up the wood smoker, you know how mouth-watering the simple thought of such a meal can be — not to mention the taste.

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But back away from the brisket and put down the pork butt, as there are some serious health concerns you should know about before planning your next feast. Registered dietitian Gillian Culbertson, RD, gets to the meat of the issue.

What’s wrong with smoked meats?

In short, smoked meat is contaminated meat.

When you hear the term “contaminated food,” you might imagine clear signs of nastiness, like a bad taste, a foul odor or a weird color. But here’s the trouble with smoked meats: The same process that makes them taste so good also contaminates them.

“The smoke itself is a source of contaminants that can be harmful,” Culbertson explains. Harmful substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when meat is cooked at very high temperatures.

Though 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 both creates these substances and carries them onto the surface of the meat.

“These compounds are created when fluids and fat drip from the meat onto the heat source and as a byproduct of the smoke,” Culbertson says. “Aromatic rings are formed, creating these harmful compounds that are transported to the meat from the smoke.”

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Does smoked meat cause cancer?  

The National Cancer Institute warns that both HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic, meaning they can cause changes to your DNA that put you at risk for certain types of cancer.

“High exposure to these compounds can lead to increased risk of cancer of the intestinal tract, notably 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 carcinogenic based on evidence of its link to colorectal cancer. Red meat, they say, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (Remember, not all processed meat is red meat, and not all red meat is processed. But there can be overlap, as in the case of, say, smoked beef brisket.)

Other risks of eating too much smoked meat

Smoked, processed meats and red meats have been associated with a higher risk of a variety of health conditions, including:

  • Stroke.
  • Heart disease.
  • Type 2 diabetes.

How much is safe to eat?

“Currently, there are no federal guidelines addressing the amount of foods that contain PAHs and HCAs that is thought to be safe,” Culbertson says.

In general, though, the American Cancer Society recommends consuming red and processed meats rarely, if at all. And the Mediterranean Diet, thought to be one of the heart-healthiest diets out there, allows for no more than one serving of red meat per week. 

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Are other smoked foods bad for you?

Bad news: It’s not just meat. Smoked cheeses have been found to contain those harmful PAHs, too. “Testing has found PAH in the interior of the cheese, but it’s concentrated in the rind,” Culbertson says.

That’s not to say you can never enjoy a smoked gouda or gruyere again. But keep your processed cheese intake to a minimum, and cut off that rind 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 a few tips for making the healthiest choices possible for those times when you can’t resist the siren song of the smoker.

  1. Use hardwoods. “Home smokers should take care to choose wood that does not have resins, like pine and other softwoods do,” Culbertson advises. “Fuel choice should be of hardwoods only.”
  2. Stick to white meats. Though smoked chicken and turkey can still create HCAs and PAHs, they are, overall, heathier choices than red meat.
  3. Go lean. Next in line after poultry are lean cuts of pork (like pork loin, tenderloin and center cut chops). If you must eat beef, choose lean cuts like flank, round, sirloin and tenderloin, and select ground beef that is at least 90% lean. “Lean product is best because most toxic compounds are created by fat dripping onto the heat source,” Culbertson says.
  4. Don’t smoke fish. In general, fish can be a very healthy diet choice — but leave it out of your smoker. “Fish often has a higher level of contaminants due to larger surface area and heavier smoking,” Culbertson explains.
  5. Avoid burning. Sorry, but burnt ends aren’t your friend. Limit HCAs and PAHs in your smoked meats by not consuming meat that has been over-cooked or charred (intentionally or otherwise).
  6. Strike a compromise with liquid smoke. “As an alternative to smoking, try marinating meats with liquid smoke, then do just a quick turn on the grill or smoker for flavor and effect,” Culbertson suggests.

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