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Ask the Diet Doctor: Is Smoked Food Bad for You?

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Q: Are smoked foods bad for you? What about foods with smokey flavoring?

A: Smoked foods are delicious, but given that not everyone has access to a smoker, the use of liquid smoke flavoring is increasing in popularity. And the use of liquid smoke flavoring oftentimes seems healthy because it doesn't impart additional calories—just flavor. But there's been buzz around the potential cancer risks of eating grilled and smoked meats—so let’s clear up some of this confusion.

Grilled vs. Smoked
While smoked and grilled foods are sometimes lumped in the same category, their cooking techniques and health concerns are different. The potential risk associated with grilled foods comes from the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCA)—chemical compunds formed when fat from food (usually animal protein) hits the flames from gilling. HCA have been known to cause certain cancers in animal studies.

Smoked food is different: It's cooked at low temperatures with indirect heat (compared to the high and direct heat of grilling). This technique doesn't lead to a large formation of HCA. However, when wood is burned, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)—a class of carcinogens—are formed. They're released via smoke and go into the food. The level of PAH in these foods varies, but foods smoked commercially in a manufacturing facility have been found to contain lower levels of PAH compared to ones smoked in non-commercial settings, like your friend’s backyard. (Try these 8 Mouthwatering Yet Healthy Grilling Recipes.)

Liquid Smoke Flavoring
Liquid smoke flavoring adds a smoked flavor because it's actual filtered smoke, condensed, and mixed with water. But research published in the Journal of Food Additives and Contaminants found that PAH are present in liquid smoke flavoring too. (The levels vary from commercial sample to commercial sample.)

How Bad Is PAH?
“The dose makes the poison” is an old adage in pharmacology, and the level at which PAH exposure begins to cause health problems has yet to be determined. The Environment Protection Agency is working to quantify that, but The American Cancer Society notes that with respects to HCA and PAH, “whether such exposure causes cancer in humans is unclear.”

My thoughts: It's prudent to err on the side of caution. Using liquid smoked flavoring in low quantities doesn’t seem to present any immediate health concerns. So if you enjoy the occasional smoked meal—and are not a daily consumer—then PAH from smoked foods is most likely not a health concern for you.

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