This mysterious chemical is a lot more common than you may think. Any number of foods which are trying to mimic a barbecue or smokehouse taste will make use of it.

Even the authentically smoked meats will often have it added to enhance their flavor.

Next time you’re at the grocery store, even at a so-called “healthy” Whole Foods or similar, go take a gander at the frozen and refrigerated meats which are already seasoned. On the labels of many, you will see “Natural Smoke Flavor” listed. Whether it’s in the water soluble form or dried, it’s the same thing.

pulled BBQ pork sandwichThe vegan meats have it too. Tofurky smoked ham lists it as the very last thing on the ingredients label. A number of pre-seasoned tofu, tempeh, and seitan products contain it.

Then there are the chips, crackers, and pretzels.

Review the label for Cheez-It Smokey Provolone and you will see “real hickory smoke flavor added.” The Triscuit Smoked Gouda is similar.

The most likely foods you will encounter containing this ingredient are those which are barbecue flavored.

A bag of Kettle Backyard Barbeque potato chips lists natural smoke flavor, as do Lay’s Barbecue (including their Kettle Cooked Mesquite version), Popchips, as well as most brands – including organic – which are striving for that grill-inspired taste.

BBQ sauce? Yep.

Sweet Baby Ray’s, Jack Daniel’s, and KC Masterpiece list it, among others.

Rather than worry about whether these foods are non-GMO or organic, might you have even bigger health risks to worry about when eating them?

What is natural smoke flavor?

smokeIt is real smoke which has been captured and condensed for use in cooking. How it’s made involves burning wood. Hardwoods like natural hickory, mesquite, and pecan are typically used for at least part of the burn mixture, in order to give it the taste of a real wood-fired grill. The particulate matter from the smoke is collected using condensers. At least some water is left intact to make liquid smoke in a bottle. Alternately, it can be dried to make a powder seasoning.

Bestselling brands include Colgin Liquid Smoke and Wrights, which are made out of natural smoke and not synthetic or artificial flavoring. Stubb’s, Cabela’s, and others make it, too.

These will be vegan and gluten free, if they’re only made from wood. Though sometimes other ingredients are added which may not be safe for some dietary restrictions, as it could contain high sodium, MSG, and common allergens like soy, gluten, and dairy/lactose.

For example, a jar of McCormick Grill Mates Smokehouse Maple seasoning contains sugar, salt, paprika and various spices. Presumably that’s the standard bone-charred sugar, which may not work for some vegan and vegetarian diets.

Regardless of the form, is dry or liquid smoke healthy for you to eat?

To answer that question, you first have to understand the known carcinogens which are found in smoked meats and fish.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

It’s a hard word to say, but the definition is easy to understand.

Consisting of more than 100 different chemicals, PAHs are made when you burn fossil fuels like coal, gas, charcoal, and wood during the cooking process.

With the natural gas on your stove top, it is not directly entering your food since you cook it in a pot or pan on top the flame. Yet when you make smoked fish or throw a slab or ribs on the barbecue, it is those meats which are directly absorbing the PAHs that are created from the burning fire.

IARC cancer ratingsThis family of 100+ chemicals includes known potent carcinogens.

Not just any carcinogens, either. Some get the absolute worst ranking possible by the World Health Organization’s IARC – Group 1 rating.

For example, the PAH known as benzo(a)pyrene is found in smoked meat and it’s a Group 1 carcinogen, ranking it in same category as hepatitis C, mustard gas, formaldehyde, and neutron radiation (1).

Making the cut for a Group 1 ranking is not easy. Only 119 things are in it, which really is not many when you consider how many substances are accused of causing cancer.

That’s because the proof has to be undeniable in order for something to get Group 1 classification.

Worse yet, benzo(a)pyrene isn’t the only carcinogenic compound created when you burn something. Other probable cancer causing agents include chrysene, benz[a]anthracene, and benzo[b]fluoranthene, just to name a few.

It should go without saying that even when they don’t cause tumors, all of them can have genotoxic and mutagenic side effects on cells in the body. Health risks aside, that activity may also accelerate some signs of aging.

Is smoke flavor dangerous to eat?

skull smoking cigaretteIntentionally increasing your exposure to benzo(a)pyrene is not a good idea.

But this is not a new health risk.

Everyone knows cigarettes cause cancer. The PAHs in them are a major reason why and yes, cigarettes contain high amounts of benzo(a)pyrene.

The nicotine in them is definitely addictive, but contrary to what the public assumes, scientists don’t believe it’s the nicotine causing the cancer. To understand why, read about nightshade plants. Tobacco is a nightshade, as are peppers and tomatoes and those too contain nicotine.

Unless it was made using tobacco leaves, there will not be nicotine in liquid smoke, spray versions, or dry spice.

For several decades now, there has compelling research linking the consumption of smoked food and cancer. For example, a 1980’s study spanning data over a decade compared stomach cancer rates of a Slovenian district in Hungary, where they consumed large amounts of these foods (2).

“…the percentage of stomach cancer among all types of cancer is nearly twice as high”

Being that their neighbors had nearly half the rates of stomach cancer, it would suggest another factor, like airborne pollution, is not the reason for the difference.

In addition to the stomach, cancers of the bladder, liver, lung, colon, and skin have been linked to PAHs exposure (3).

polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from asphaltFood isn’t you only exposure. Freshly sprayed asphalt, car exhaust, and other petrochemicals mean these compound are in the air, too. However despite the rampant pollution, some 70% of PAHs exposure comes from what you eat, not from breathing polluted air (4).

Is smoked paprika bad for you? The scientific consensus is that PAHs in smoke are unhealthy. For that reason, anything prepared using these cooking methods will at least draw scrutiny.

But are the liquids and powders made from captured smoke worse, equal, or better for you than eating food smoked the natural way, using an open flame?

The measurements to answer this question were shocking, even to us.

PAHs in liquid vs. actual smoke

One of the best studies ever done on this topic was by Michigan State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (5).

Title: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in smoked food products and commercial liquid smoke flavourings

It’s by no means a new study, but it remains among the most thorough because they analyzed 18 different commercial liquid smoke flavors and seasonings. Since they did not disclose the brands used, it’s unknown which are better or worse.

Additionally, they compared traditionally smoked turkey, pork, chicken, beef, and fish to the faux form.

Here’s a look at how the results averaged out…

Food Benzo(a)pyrene Equivalents (ng)
Hickory smoke flavoring (1 teaspoon) 0.8
Mesquite smoke flavoring (1 teaspoon) 1.1
Smoked ham 21.8
Smoked turkey breast 26.7
BBQ chicken 88.5
Smoked herring 140.0
Smoked salmon 511.6

It turns out that these cancerous compounds tend to be fat soluble versus water soluble. That means much more of the flavor compounds (vs. cancer compounds) are being captured in the bottle.

The recommended daily upper safety limit for these carcinogens is 47 nanograms, so you would have to be guzzling quite a few bottles of the natural smoke powder or liquid to hit that limit.

smoked salmon with fresh herbs on topWhat is considered one of the healthiest meats – salmon – actually exceeds the upper safety limit for these carcinogens by over 900% if it has been naturally smoked. That’s just for a standard single serving of the fish!

Now that MSU study is over three decades old and they only looked at five different cancer causing agents.

How does that data compare to the newer testing which may be more advanced?

Here’s a summary of the research (6)…

table of how much carcinogens are in smoked meats and fish

The trend appears to remain. Keep in mind that cooked meat – even when it’s not smoked – will still contain PAHs. It’s one of the reasons why meat may cause cancer.

The other reason is heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Similar to PAHs, this is another category of cancer-causing compounds which are formed when animal muscle is cooked at high temperatures. That’s why HCAs are only a concern for people who eat meat, not those on a plant-based diet.

The NIH’s National Cancer Institute offers this advice for reducing exposure to PAHs and HCAs in cooked meat (7):

“Avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface and avoiding prolonged cooking times”

Ultimately, this is one of those situations where the best advice is not what you would expect!

You would think these bottles of smoke would be the worst thing for your health. You can’t say they’re good for you, but the research does suggest that they are probably much better for you than eating meat that’s actually smoked.

The takeaway?

The harmful effects of Lay’s chips are potentially cancerous acrylamide content, as well as the high amounts of sodium, calories, and bad fats. All of those are more concerning than the compounds in the Lay’s BBQ flavoring.

If you insist on eating smoked meats and fish, whether that be salmon, prime rib, applewood bacon, or summer sausage, your best bet will be to buy a bottle of Wright’s, Stubbs, or Colgin liquid smoke and use that, instead of making them the old-fashioned way over smoldering wood or charcoal.

The research suggests preparing them the fake way will be much safer than the real way.