Fish is good for you, but smoked foods may contain harmful chemicals. Is smoked fish a healthy choice?
Q. I would love to know your thoughts on smoked salmon. Am I kidding myself that this is a healthy choice? I make a dish with smoked salmon, vegetables, and whole grain pasta for dinner a couple of times a month. This is a definite favorite in our household, but am I doing my family an injustice by making this for them?
A. It's a dilemma all right! On one hand, salmon is rich in omega-3 fats. On the other hand, the smoking process does produce compounds called PAHs, which have been found to be carcinogenic. Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
As always, it's important to put the dangers in perspective. We are exposed to PAHs through a number of routes: Grilled and charred meats are among the biggest sources—especially for people who eat these foods frequently. Smoked shellfish and fish can also contain significant amounts, depending on how they are smoked. Smaller amounts of PAHs are found in unsmoked seafood, cooking oils, cereal grains, and other foods. We are also exposed to PAHs in the air we breathe (especially if you're breathing cigarette smoke) and the water we drink.
While I think it's worth avoiding unnecessary or excessive exposure to PAHs, we can't reduce it zero. Nor is this necessary. The body has an amazing ability to detoxify harmful substances. We just want to be sure we're not overloading those systems.
The amount of PAHs in smoked fish varies greatly. Smoked salmon and trout are lower in PAHs than smoked mackerel, herring, or oysters, for example. Cold-smoked and mildly smoked fish is also much lower in PAHs than hot-smoked. One study even found that mild, cold-smoked salmon was no higher in PAHs than unsmoked salmon.
On balance, I think the benefits of this healthy family favorite outweigh any potential concerns.
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Findings of the EFSA Data Collection on Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Food A Report from the Unit of Data Collection and Exposure on a Request from the European Commission Link
Olga Viegas, Iria Yebra-Pimentel, et al. Effect of Beer Marinades on Formation of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Charcoal-Grilled Pork Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2014 62 (12), 2638-2643 Link.
Visciano P, Perugini M, et al. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in fresh and cold-smoked Atlantic salmon fillets. J Food Prot. 2006 May;69(5):1134-8. Link.
Smoked salmon with dill image courtesy of Shutterstock