Lots of people enjoy the taste of smoked meat and fish—there’s nothing quite like the flavor derived from “low and slow” smoking. Smoking meat and fish certainly isn’t a new thing, however, more and more people are taking up hot-smoking food at home, now that reasonably-priced smokers are popping up at hardware stores, general retailers and of course, online. You know something has gone mainstream when you see it for sale in warehouse club stores!
But as much as you might enjoy smoked foods, you might be wondering about the food safety aspects of smoking foods at home, and whether smoked foods in general should be a regular part of your diet. Here are a few things we think you should know about cooking and eating smoked foods…
Don’t expect the smoking process to preserve the food.
Yes, smoking is an ancient food preservation technique, but it doesn’t do the whole job (ancient foods were often dried as well to help with preservation). It’s primarily a cooking technique that adds flavor—not a means of food preservation. Because of this, food safety measures need to be employed in order to keep smoked foods safe to eat. If you’re going to smoke food at home, the main food safety points are 1) Not using frozen fish or meat (and thawing it correctly and safely), 2) bringing the food to proper internal temperatures, 3) cooling food down quickly and 4) storing it in the refrigerator or freezer properly. Check this USDA tip sheet and this information from Michigan State University Extension Service for the specifics on how to safely prepare and store your smoked meats and fish.
Smoking meat probably isn’t better for your health than grilling it.
We’ve written before on how to minimize health risks when grilling (we even did a short webinar on general healthy grilling tips that you can watch), so you might already be aware that grilling meat (especially to the point of charring) causes the formation of some carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) in the meat. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—some of which are carcinogenic—are also created during grilling, but are also present during smoking of meat, as they can be carried via the smoke. Since both types of these chemicals are found in varying amounts in grilled and smoked foods, avoiding eating charred or barbecued meat by simply replacing it with smoked meat won’t really get you ahead health-wise.
Limit your consumption of smoked meats.
The link between cancer and the consumption of these compounds in humans is inconsistent, although for colorectal cancer, the association with red/processed meat is stronger. Granted, our levels of exposure from eating grilled/smoked foods are much lower than the levels used in research studies to induce cancer in animals, but it certainly can’t hurt you to be prudent with your intake of smoked meats. By the way, the term “processed” meats includes smoked products as well as quite a few other types, so you might want to check the list if you eat lots of meat sandwiches and the like. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, even small amounts of red/processed meat consumption eaten regularly can increase risk for colorectal and stomach cancers. Interestingly, the link between HCAs and cancer has not been shown with poultry and fish (although carcinogenic PAHs in smoked fish have been shown to be high).
There’s no need to shun grilled or smoked foods for the rest of your days, but don’t eat them daily—or even regularly, either. Maybe save them for special occasions and holidays, and make an increased effort to increase the variety of food you eat, which will help decrease your reliance on processed and smoked meats.