Is smoking food bad for you & healthiest way to smoke your meat

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  March 17, 2020

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Is smoked food bad for you? While it’s true that grilled and smoked meats sometimes get a bad reputation as being unhealthy, that’s not exactly true and the pros and cons should be considered carefully.

When you look at the big picture the research is not conclusive, and the general consensus is that smoked foods are healthier than grilled foods.

Eating moderate quantities of smoked food is not bad for you. The primary risk of eating smoked food is that the fuel combustion process releases chemical compounds which can contain carcinogenic properties. But smoked meat is healthier because it’s cooked on indirect heat. Grilling on high heat causes more harmful carcinogens to develop than with low and slow cooking.

Grilling at high temperatures and even slow and low smoking causes Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) chemicals to form which are associated with DNA mutations and are linked to cancer.

So, while smoking isn’t the healthiest, the quantity of these chemicals is far lower in smoked foods because low and slow cooking doesn’t favor the formation, whereas high heat grilling (over 300F) does.

However, the good news is that the research is still inconclusive and there’s no need to stop grilling or smoking meat as of now.

While we here at Lakeside Smokers are grilling enthusiasts and would almost always recommend to you, our readers, any crazy recipe to smoke or grill, we do advise you to consume your food sparingly and not get carried away.

Anything in excess is never good for your body, so cook your delicacies, savor their taste and eat moderately.

In this article, I’ll talk about the pros and cons of smoking food, the health benefits and risks, and how to smoke healthier foods. I’ll also share the healthiest smoked food options.

Why smoke food?

Smoking food or grilling food or barbecuing food is actually one of the various processes of curing food (preserving food for food security) and almost no one can complain how the smoker grill would imbue all sorts of food with that crisp, juicy and unbelievable taste that you can’t get anywhere else.

Humans have been smoking food for thousands of years. Smoking was invented in order to preserve food.

But also smoking is a method of flavoring meat, fish, seafood, cheese, and vegetables with all kinds of smoky wood flavors.

As you can imagine back in the day there are no fridges so food would spoil very quickly. Meat and other foods would have to be cured or smoked to prevent them from rotting and spoiling.

Smoked meat has a much longer shelf life than freshly cooked meat, and some might argue it’s even tastier.

Just think about it; smoked pastrami or smoked Polish sausage can last for months whereas if you buy raw deli meats and sausages you have to cook them and eat them quickly or they start to spoil and gather bacteria.

Is smoked food bad for you?

The unhealthy part of smoked food is actually a result of chemical compounds that form when you cook on high heat.

The combustion of wood and charcoal with the combination of animal fats and fibers makes the emitted chemicals dangerous.

Let’s look at what makes smoked food and grilled food potentially risky.

Heterocyclic Amines (HCA) & PAH in grilled and smoked foods

The biggest health hazard from grilled or smoked meat are the HCA’s (Heterocyclic Amines) and PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

These chemical compounds are believed to be carcinogenic, meaning they contribute to the development of cancer in the body.

Whether grilled or smoked, heterocyclic amines (or HCA) always become a byproduct in the food and HCAs are one of the leading causes of cancer.

Grilled foods produce more levels of HCA as grilling exposes the meat or other types of food to direct heat and they leave some amount of carcinogenic matter that you end up consuming.

Other dangerous compounds include N-nitroso. All of the chemical compounds I just mentioned are harmful to health if ingested in very large quantities.

If you smoke some brisket or ribs occasionally, there’s pretty much no risk there.

But these chemical compounds are naturally there when you burn the fuel source such as wood, charcoal, gasoline, and crude oil.

If you’re grilling, there is a lot of PAH and HCA present but when smoking food, there is much less because these chemicals form at temperatures higher than 300 F.

Smoking is usually done at temperatures lower than 250 F.

So, is smoking food dangerous to your health?

Well yes and no. While smoking can favor the production of some unhealthy chemical compounds, smoking is not as bad as grilling and moderate consumption of smoked foods is safe.

So, there’s no need to worry excessively though, because if you have no history of cancer in your family, then the chances of you developing cancer are 1 in a billion.

This means that you’d have to eat at least half a pound of grilled foods 5 times a week for 20 years and there’s only a 10% chance that you’ll get cancer.

For smoked foods, it would be 40 years and you’d only have a 3% chance.

smoking food

You may also want to read my recipe of the best smoked Beef and Pork Chili (with secret ingredient!)

But if you have a history of cancer in your family, then you may want to cut it back to a quarter of a pound a day for only 2-3 times a week or maybe even less than that, and you only eat smoked foods over grilled ones.

Still, moderation is the key to successful healthy living!

Is smoking healthier than grilling?

Yes, smoking is much healthier than grilling food because you cook at lower temperatures.

According to recent research, smoked meats are healthier than grilled meats. When the flames combine with animal fat, the tremendous heat from grilling poses a concern.

HCA and PAHs form when you cook over high heat and open flames. These are the dangerous compounds to avoid.

Because smoked meats are cooked at lower temperatures, the risks are mostly minimized. Without HCAs and PAHs, smoked food doesn’t pose too much of a health risk.

Artificial smoked flavorings added to some meats pose a modest danger, but if consumed in moderation, the health hazards are minimal.

Also always make sure you stay out of the temperature danger zone when smoking food

Is liquid smoke bad for you?

Liquid smoke isn’t very healthy because it’s an artificial concoction.

Since artificial smoke is made with various chemicals, it can be carcinogenic too.

To produce liquid smoke, wood smoke vapors are captured and then condensed to be used on smoked meats at a later date.

Therefore, the wood smoke can contain PAHs in small quantities. Overall, in order to be dangerous, you must consume lots of liquid smoke.

I’m talking about at least 3 bottles of liquid smoke – that’s when you reach the max consumption limit.

But, most artificially smoked foods actually contain small amounts of smoke so it’s not as dangerous.

How to avoid getting cancer from grilling or smoking foods

Like I mentioned earlier, moderately smoking food or grilling them and limiting your smoked or grilled food intake is one way to avoid health risks.

The fact is that it’s not just cancer that you need to worry about, because bad cholesterol, cardiovascular diseases, chances of becoming overweight or obese, and other unwanted health problems will come after munching chunks after chunks of meat and other grilled foods!

The health risks are also not just limited to smoked or grilled foods. You could get health problems by consuming 15 bottles of Nutella in 5 days!

Literally, anything you take excessively will eventually be bad for you.

How you smoke and grill food matters because it determines whether you end up with charred meat.

Charred meat contains a dangerous compound called creosote which looks like black soot on your food. Not only does it taste bitter and awful, but it also contains unhealthy toxins.

Most people nowadays use specialty boxes, containers, and grills to smoke a variety of foods for friends and family during barbecues and camping.  

This unique cooking process imparts a deep, delectably smoky flavor to your barbeque foods, giving them a new layer of flavor.

It is, nevertheless, critical to understanding how to smoke food in a sustainable and responsible manner.

You can end up with an undesirable result if you hot smoke meat too rapidly or use too much wood for smoking.

Fortunately, there are a few easy guidelines to follow in order to smoke meat and other foods safely.

Read more: the best BBQ smokers for meat reviewed

Helpful tips in smoking foods and remaining healthy

smoking food
  • Don’t eat smoked or grilled foods daily (especially grilled foods) – There’s no harm in eating a couple of barbecued meat occasionally, but try not to get addicted to them. Eat maybe 2-3 times a week and spread the days throughout the week to allow your body to digest them properly.
  • Variate your food choices – Surely there’s more than just meat to buy in the market, right? So, take note of the food pyramid and eat what’s recommended there such as vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, some fat and other herbs. You may also want to take food supplement alternatives like those herb-based multivitamin capsules and other similar products. This is to ensure that you get all the vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids that your body needs.
  • Exercise – Ah! This would seem to be the least of all the tips given by so many experts that people don’t take seriously when NOT doing it can have serious health impacts on anyone. You may want to train in an ultimate fitness gym where they offer multiple types of workouts designed specifically to help your body burn hundreds if not thousands of calories in 1-2 hours per day. Basically if you put off as much as you take in, then you should be as healthy as a horse.
  • Take the idea of smoking food as a learning experience and not an excuse for gluttony – I don’t know about you, but for me smoking food and grilling is a learning curve all the time. True I love what I accomplish in those electric or gas grills just as much as any bloke would, but I don’t do it just to satisfy my needs to the point of getting diabetes or high blood pressure. I’m more excited on how the smoked food will taste like in my mouth than how good it will fill my stomach, because if I just wanted to get fat, then I can eat pizza every day. Treat smoking food as a learning experience and you’ll enjoy it more.
smoking food

Benefits of smoked meats

People always wonder if there are good things about smoked meat and yes – they’re not unhealthy and they’re super flavorful!

Well, when you smoke food, there’s no need to use cooking oil & saturated fat.

When you fry meat or veggies, you must use some kind of fat, grease, or oil to give the meal taste, texture, and moisture as it cooks.

These fats can be absorbed into your food whether you use butter, margarine, or various bad vegetable oils like sunflower, corn, or processed canola oil.

The result is a pleasant but highly unhealthy consequence.

In fact, saturated fats are known to cause heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

You don’t have to use these sorts of fatty oils to cook meat or vegetables when you smoke them, so you’re less likely to gain weight or develop heart problems.

Smoked food is a terrific supplement to any balanced diet since it produces nutritious, high-protein dishes that are also fun to eat. Smoked meat, in particular, has a lot of iron.

Because it avoids the use of oils, fats, and sauces, smoking is a low-fat cooking method.

In general, cooking at a low temperature preserves the nutritional value of your food by preventing the oxidation and degradation of vitamins and minerals.

As a result, when you properly smoke meat or veggies, you preserve more of their nutritious content while still producing delectable results.

Preserving more nutrients means the food is generally healthier for you, even if it’s a fattier meat cut like pork or beef.

You run the risk of scorching meat when you cook it in a saucepan or on a grill at high heat.

If you’re hot smoking your food, the temperature at which the meat is cooked will be significantly lower than if you were grilling or frying it.

As a result, you’re much more likely to avoid generating flare-ups on the surface of the meat or scorching it. Thus, there is less chemical HCA and PAH production.

Healthiest smoked meats

The healthiest meats to smoke are ones that are lean and low in fat. It’s not all about the smoke – the meat type matters too!

Some of the best lean and tasty meats to smoke include wild game such as elk, buffalo, bison, and deer.

Smoked fish is also healthy and good for you – there are plenty of smoked fish recipes for salmon and whitefish for all tastes.

Seafood like crayfish and shrimp is very low in calories and great for weight loss.

Beef gets a bad reputation but if you choose the right cuts of meat, it’s healthy when smoked.

Grass-fed beef is a healthy smoked meat option. Brisket is a good choice but you can also make your own smoked beef jerky which is a good snack when you feel a bit hungry.

The meat from the flank, London broil, and eye of round roast are great cuts to smoke.

Don’t underestimate the flavors of a well-smoked turkey. This is a lean meat which has lots of vitamins and minerals too.

Use smoked turkey breast as the main part of your dinner, or use it in sandwiches, wraps, and salads.

Make sure your turkey is fully cooked by putting the thermometer in the right place!

Chicken is quite healthy too and is also the most affordable option.

Smoked meat is high in iron and full of protein so it keeps your body feeling full and well-nourished.

Healthy things to smoke on a smoker

The smoked foods aren’t so unhealthy but what makes them bad for you is the addition of high-sodium and high-sugar marinades, dry rubs, and sauces.

So, when you’re smoking food, just use less or skip the fatty sauces altogether.

Let’s take a look at healthy foods to smoke in your smoker:

  • shrimp
  • fish
  • chicken
  • turkey
  • lamb
  • game meat
  • duck
  • ham
  • lean cuts of beef like top round, sirloin tip
  • vegetables (asparagus, carrots, peppers, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • fruit like pineapples

Are smoked vegetables healthy?

Yes, smoked vegetables are healthy. They retain many of their nutrients but the smoke flavor enhances the natural aromas.

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can choose to smoke vegetables only and most vegetables can be smoked.

They will taste amazing, just be sure to use a wood like maple or a fruitwood that gives a delicate smoky aroma.

You can also smoke the veggies alongside meat if you like. The smoked vegetables are the best healthy side dish for meat and seafood.

If you smoke vegetables and fruit, place the protein above the fire and the rest in a ring around the perimeter. This arrangement allows the veggies and fruit to cook at a slower rate than the meat.

Once again, it’s how you cook the veggies that matters. Smoke them on low heat so you don’t get chemicals to form and make them unhealthy.

But even then, grilled vegetables are much healthier than grilled meats.

Vegetables don’t have the same makeup as meats so they don’t get full of PAHs and HCAs.

But, if you brush them with oil prior to grilling and smoking, you can make them unhealthier because burning oil is once again unhealthy.

If you haven’t started smoking foods other than meat yet, this is as good a time as any.

Recipe for the healthiest way to smoke meat

This isn’t really a recipe for a specific dish but it’s a recipe for how to smoke food in a healthy way!

The easiest way to smoke healthy foods is to use a smoker correctly and to cook your food on indirect heat.

Indirect grilling prevents fat from pouring directly onto the flame, lowering the likelihood of carcinogens rising into the smoke.

So, smoke low and slow which means smoking for several hours at a low temperature up to 250 F (find the best smokers for this reviewed here).

To add flavor and moisture to meals, use rubs, marinades, and wood smoke instead of fat. Cooking oils burn a thick smoke and are full of harmful chemicals when they combust.

Also, to keep the food healthy avoid salty brine solutions. When you brine food it preserves well but the high sodium content is bad for your health.

To avoid a high sodium intake with your smoked food, use a water pan in your smoker. This ensures the meat doesn’t dry out.

A humid and moist environment keeps the meat juicy and tasty while it smokes.

What to take away from all of this?

I think what we should all focus on is staying healthy while enjoying smoked foods and not focus on the negative things about the health impacts that grilled foods and HCAs cause, because at the end of the day if you’re doing things the right way, then there’s nothing to fear.

Smoking is generally safer than grilling because you cook the food at a lower temperature and all those toxic chemicals don’t have a chance to form.

We should, by no means, reject smoking food or grilling as it has been a great tradition not only for Americans but for the rest of the world as well.

I mean, people still eat lasagna despite the half a pound of cheese that’s stuffed in it, like do they even know how much cholesterol there is in that thing?

We get it! We recognize the health hazards, but we will do this safely rather than stop doing it and miss out on a lot in our lives.

Now, if you’re really into getting and eating healthy, take a look at our vegetable recipes to get yourself some nutrition too instead of always a lot of smoked meats.

Alright, here’s a fun project: 3 tips on how to make a Outdoor Kitchen with a smoker

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.