Bodybuilders are notorious carnivores, and nothing satisfies our cravings for cooked flesh quite like grilled or smoked meat. After all, what could be better than devouring a delicious grilled steak or succulent smoked ribs, knowing that we’re ALSO loading up on protein?
Every few years, though, whispers stir about just how healthy smoked and grilled meat are, with some folks even suggesting the tasty duo can cause cancer of the stomach and throat, among others.
Rather than chuck our fleshy delicacies in a knee-jerk reaction, let’s take a look at the science behind the accusations and find out what research studies really say about smoked meat and cancer.
Why Grilled and Smoked Meat COULD Cause Cancer
The cancer risk involved with eating various types of cooked meat basically comes down to two toxic chemicals.
When combustible materials like wood, charcoal, or gas are not completely burned, their smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Those PAHs can combine with the nitrogen-rich proteins in meat to produce nitrated PAHs, or NPAHS, on food surfaces. In turn, PAHs and NPAHs have been shown to cause cancers of the skin, liver, stomach, and other organs.
The smoking process involves exposing meat to smoke from wood or other plants, at either low or high temperatures. “Cold” smoking relies on the smoke itself to cure the meat, while “hot” smoking both flavors AND cooks the meat. In either case, and depending on WHAT you’re burning, smoked meat could be susceptible to PAH contamination.
On the other hand, when you cook meat at high temperatures, such as over an open flame when grilling, the protein can contribute to the formation of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. These HCAs have also been found to be mutagenic, meaning they cause changes to DNA. Change your DNA enough, and you could be setting yourself up for cancer.
The biggest risk from HCAs comes with charred, blackened meat that has been cooked directly in or over a fire.
The Recent Furor Over Grilled and Smoked Meat
The latest round of cooked meat alarms first sounded in January of 2014, when Slate published an article titled, “Cooking Up Cancer? It wouldn’t be crazy to give up grilled, smoked, or fried food.”
In that piece, Brian Palmer lays out the case against grilled and smoked meat, citing three main studies from the 1960s onward that show a possible link to increased cancer rates.
The problem with the Slate article, and with the studies cited, is that they present just one side of the story and contain a decent amount of bias.
Luckily, other readers have stepped in to supply more of the facts, and one of the best pieces along these lines was penned by Craig Goldwyn at the Huffington Post. In his article, Goldwyn lays out these details:
- The 1965 Russian study that Palmer cites as linking smoked foods to stomach cancer has not been translated to English, and has limited applicability to modern American culture.
- Hungarian research from 1980 that also links smoked foods to stomach cancer focused on a population that uses predominantly soft evergreens for the smoking process. These types of trees are known to contain harmful resins, but most Western smoking makes use of less toxic hardwoods.
- The 2012 study that points to smoked meat as a risk factor for breast cancer among Chinese women examined populations consuming meats known to generally contain harmful bacteria.
What’s more, Goldwyn asserts, these studies are epidemiological in nature, meaning they rely on population surveys for their data. This type of research is generally used as a starting point for more in-depth studies, and initial hypotheses are often later shown to be off-kilter from reality.
So, Is Grilled and Smoked Meat Safe?
Any time scientists link our favorite foods to cancer or other diseases, it’s time for us to take notice and make an informed decision about our health.
In the case of grilled and smoked meat, though, there is not yet sufficient evidence to warrant ditching these items from our menus permanently. That doesn’t mean we need to take unnecessary risks, though.
If you’re going to eat grilled meat, make sure it’s not cooked directly over an open flame and don’t eat charred or blackened meat. If the edges of your chicken or steak are starting to get brown and crispy, you’ve taken it too far.
If you’re going to eat smoked meat, make sure that “hot” smoking has been used and that the food has been prepared at a USDA-approved facility. Those are your two best measures for avoiding bacterial contamination and incomplete combustion — and PCAs.
Of course, if you’re REALLY concerned about the safety of your meat, talk to your doctor. For now, though, sensibly cooked meat does not appear to be the villain that many would make it out to be.