Smoked foods have been a traditional way of cooking meats, fish and other food for a long time. Indigenous cultures all around the globe used smoking as a way to keep flies away from fish, and soon realized that the smoke also acts as a preservative. Caribbean natives would smoke meat on a rack over a smoky fire, which they referred to as a “barbacoa”, believed to be one of the first origins of the word barbeque. Today, smoked food is a delicacy in many countries and cultures, from America’s smoked country ham to pastrami.
Unfortunately for smoked food lovers, there’s an overwhelming amount of research indicating that traditionally smoked foods are linked to many types of cancer, including intestinal, bowel, pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancers, as well as being linked to stomach infections.
Furthermore, many smoked meats contain high levels of salt. Fortunately, there are other ways to achieve a great smoky flavor that don’t come with the health risks, such as with seasonings, liquid smoke and molasses.
A gas grill is easy to clean and convenient, but you won’t get the smoky flavor that you would with a charcoal grill. However, there is a simple way around this. All you need is some wood chips and aluminum foil to create that delicious smoky flavor and smell that will infuse your food.
Soak 2 cups of wood chips in water for 15 minutes and leave another 2 cups dry. Wrap each in separate parcels of aluminum foil and slice 2-inch slits across the top of each. Place both parcels onto your grill’s primary burner.
A combination of wet and dry chips helps to give a steady, continuous smoke when you’re cooking so that you don’t get a strong smoke to begin with that wears off. It also means you don’t have to add any chips throughout cooking, making it a simple and easy method that adds lots of flavor and aroma to your cooking.
There are a number of concerns about why smoked food may not be good for human health, such as containing known carcinogens. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzopyrenes, are found in the smoke from wood and are a class one carcinogen and toxic. Nitrosamines are also carcinogenic and are a common byproduct of curing agents, including nitrites and nitrates.
The American Cancer Society says that eating a lot of smoked meat and salted fish increases the risk of stomach cancer. A link has also been found between consuming smoked foods and getting stomach infections caused by E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes.
Another study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that eating smoked meats or processed meats significantly increases your risk of stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Unprocessed meat is healthier and isn’t linked to increased chances of heart disease and diabetes.
They recommended eating small to moderate amounts of cured or smoked meats, although other research recommends that there is no safe amount to consume. The World Health Organization has also classified all processed meats as a class one carcinogen, linking it to increased chances of bowel and stomach cancer.
A lot of smoked meat and fish will be high in sodium as it often comes in salt brine, involves salt-curing or will have a salt rub on it, so you’ll end up eating plenty of salt this way. While salt is an essential mineral and electrolyte that the body needs, high levels have a strong link to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, strokes and can cause the body to retain excess water, leading to dangerous swelling. People who have existing kidney or heart disease should avoid smoked meats altogether for this reason.
Non-smoked meats and other foods will not be able to replicate the flavor, but there are some good alternatives that are a lot healthier. Marinating food in a sauce with coconut aminos and some liquid smoke can create a delicious flavor, without any of the health risks.
Opting for meats that don’t have salt or nitrates added to them is advisable too. There are lots of different foods you can smoke that aren’t meat, such as tofu, tempeh, vegetables, some fruits, spices and herbs, all of which can be used to create delicious meals with a smoky flavor.
Liquid smoke is a very simple and easy way of adding that pure, smoky flavoring to food, without actually smoking it. You can use it as a rub, marinade or ingredient when preparing foods, such as for smoked cheeses, meats, tofu and plenty of other foods.
Some people think of liquid smoke as cheating as it’s a quick way to get the same flavor, but even authentically smoked meats often have a little liquid smoke added to enhance the flavor.
To make liquid smoke, wood chips are burnt, and the smoke is condensed, cooled and collected. This means that a lot of the health risks associated with smoking food on a grill may still remain.
One of the most comprehensive studies ever done into smoked foods versus liquid smoke flavorings analyzed how each affect human health. The study was done by the Michigan State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. They analyzed 18 different commercial liquid smoke seasonings and flavorings, as well as comparing traditionally smoked meats, including turkey, chicken, pork, beef and fish.
They found that cancerous compounds tended to be fat soluble, rather than water soluble, meaning liquid smoke captures mostly flavor compounds and not so many of the cancer compounds. Natural liquid smoke flavors were found to contain very low amounts of carcinogens, concluding that they’re fairly safe to consume.
Shockingly, the study found that a single serving of salmon, often considered a healthy meat, exceeded the upper safety limit of carcinogens by over 900% when naturally smoked. Ham and turkey breast both registered within safe levels, but were still much higher than the liquid smoke, and chicken and herring were both well over recommended safety levels.
You’re probably already using some herbs and spices in your cooking but knowing which ones can give a smoked flavor can be a game-changer. Spices like cumin have a naturally smoky taste to them, while others will be ground up first and then smoked afterwards, like smoked paprika.
It’s important to be aware that smoked paprika and other herbs and spices smoked in this way will still contain carcinogens as they go through the same process as smoking meats on a grill or over an open flame.
Smoked salt is another good option, but again, be careful of how much salt you’re consuming. Smoked salt is best added as a finishing touch, rather than adding as an ingredient as the dish may quickly become salty but lose the smoked taste. Get these seasonings right to add another dimension to your food.
To many, molasses is a baking ingredient, but it’s often used in barbeque sauces to add a smoky flavor. It has a dark and earthy tone to it that can be added to anything from glazes to soups. It also has a sweet element, making it a great ingredient to experiment with for smoky flavorings. Start with one tablespoon at a time and add more to taste.
Lapsang souchong tea originates from China and is believed to be the first tea in history. It has a very distinct smoky flavor that is achieved by drying the leaves over pine wood fires, which was done to speed up drying times when people were preparing them to sell at markets. It has a very distinctive taste with a smokiness that can be likened to smoking on a grill. The tea is often used for vegetarian dishes as it gives a meaty flavor and adds a richness without using meat.
Researchers have looked at how the automobile industry removes harmful compounds from smoke by using a zeolite filter to see if this can be applied to smoking food. Leader of the study Jane K. Parker, Ph.D, says;
“. . .not all smoked foods are dangerous, but we do know most can contain low levels of these [carcinogens], so we should try to remove them. If we could produce a smoke with few carcinogens, but that still has the same great taste, that would be ideal. Zeolite filters, which are put in a tailpipe, have been used in the car industry to reduce environmental pollutants, but they haven’t been applied to food yet. We want to change that.”
Researchers teamed up with a company that specializes in natural smoking, called Besmoke, and worked together to make optimized filters that remove as many carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as possible from the smoke. Their best filter removed up to 93% of benzopyrene, which they then used to test the flavor of smoked foods.
Tasters tried chicken made with both unfiltered smoke and Parker’s filter. They described the filtered one as having a bit of a ‘Christmas ham’ aroma and a rounded, balanced flavor. The unfiltered foods they tried were described as ‘ashtray’ and ‘acrid smoke’. Researchers believe this is because the filters removed largely higher molecular weight components that may be the ones to give a harsher flavor. They’re not sure why the filter works in this way, so more research is needed, which could result in further removing the harmful components. These types of filters are great news for people who love to eat smoked foods as it means they could become a whole lot healthier in the near future.
Research shows that traditionally smoked foods are linked to carcinogens, genotoxins and mutagenics, all of which are bad for human health. The good news is that a smoked flavor can be achieved in other ways with much lower health risks, such as with liquid smoke, herbs, spices and other seasonings.
Of course, these will all give different tastes and aromas, some which will be similar to smoking, while others give vastly different smoky flavors, but still have a unique and desirable taste. Research to find ways of smoking foods traditionally but without the associated health risks is promising but doesn’t take into account that meats will still be cooked at high temperatures, therefore carcinogenic heterocyclic amines will still be present in the meat itself.