Stomach cancer deaths in Japan, according to medical records, outnumber all other cancer deaths combined. And according to scientific surveys, this high rate may be caused in part by the Japanese diet, which is rich in smoked, salted, pickled, and barbecued foods. Research has suggested that there may be possible links with other cancers as well. Indeed while smoked and cured foods are highly prized for their flavor, they can be harmful to your health.
Foods were once cured by various methods – smoking (slow drying over fire at low temperatures), air drying (dehydrating), and salt curing (using salt or a brine solution to kill bacteria) – as a way to preserve them. Today, however, most curing is done with additives.
Some scientists are concerned that curing methods may jeopardize your health. Consider the following facts:
1) Smoked foods contain cancer-causing substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The more smoke used, the greater the buildup of PAHs. Yet recent studies examined PAHs in smoked fish, shellfish, charbroiled meats, and cured meats, and the results revealed very low levels that do not pose any long-term health risk.
2) Another ingredient added to such foods as bologna, bacon, hot dogs, sausages, ham, and salami are nitrites. These preservatives keep meat from turning gray; they also prevent contamination by such bacteria as Clostridium botulinum (which causes botulism). While nitrates have been linked to the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines in some laboratory animals, medical experts say they have never actually posed a serious threat to our health – studies indicate that indeed, 80 percent of the average per capita intake of nitrates comes from our own saliva.
3) Cured foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and olives pose yet another problem: they are extremely high in sodium, which can be bad for people with high blood pressure and others who need to limit the amount of salt in their diet.
Here’s good news: Americans are eating fewer smoked and cured foods. Researchers credit the trend to increased consumption of fresh produce and less reliance on preserved foods. The use of nitrates and nitrites in cured meat products has become strictly regulated in the United States and manufacturers may only use up to the maximum permitted levels stipulated in the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) regulations. Most manufacturers now replace the smoking process with the addition of "liquid smoke," which provides flavor without nitrates. And many home smokers now use a cold- or liquid-curing process that is smoke-free.
In the end, an occasional serving of bacon or smoked trout won’t harm you. But health experts caution not to overdo it. And counter the effects of any smoked and cured foods you do indulge in by eating a diet high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, and antioxidants, such as vitamins A, E, and C.