I have gotten this question a lot on this blog — people have asked me a lot if the smoke used for smoke fish pose any danger to their health. I plan to use this article to talk a little about the process of fish smoking and smoking of food in general. I will also answer this question to the best of my knowledge here with facts to back my answers.
Smoking remains a popular food preservation method in this part of the world. Smoking develops a lot of flavors in fish that many people have forgotten that smoking should be for preservation, they just want to get that characteristic smoked fish flavor in their mouth.
In one of my previous articles about the dangers of eating Suya, I mentioned smoking and some of the other potential dangers. You can still read that article.
What is Food Smoking?
Smoking can be simply defined as the process of flavouring, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning materials. The material most commonly used is wood.
Wood contains three major components — cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, that are broken down in the burning process to form smoke. Typical smoking of fish is either cold (28–32°C) or hot (70–80°C). Hot smoking is what is prevalent around here.
When I talk about smoking in this article, I mean the traditional, common smoking process using smokes from burning woods or wood shavings. Smoking was originally carried out on food (including fish) to preserve them. However, since the advent of freezing and other preservation methods, smoking is now mostly done to develop the unique taste and flavour imparted by the smoking process.
So, is smoking of fish dangerous to human health?
Honestly, there is no straight answer to this caution and one has to tread the line of caution when advising people. One cannot just say smoked fish is dangerous to health. No.
The main potential danger associated with smoking of fish and other foods is PAH. When wood is burned, Polycylclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)—a class of carcinogens—are formed. These are deposited on foods and are known to cause cancer. You would recall I mentioned this in this article.
However, when people talk about whether smoking of food is dangerous or not, some forget to take the dose into consideration. Yes, PAHs are dangerous, there is no doubt about that but the dose that we take in will determine if it will lead to the onset of cancer or not.
Generally, foods smoked commercially in a manufacturing facility have been found to contain lower levels of PAHs compared to those smoked in noncommercial settings. An example of the latter is those we by in many open markets, displayed in the open and wrapped in nylons or papers when we purchase. There is no way to determine the level of PAHs in this, unless the necessary tests are carried out.
Since, we cannot test those fishes before buying them, we cannot determine if they contain low or the level of dose that has been found to be harmful to experimental animals.
If you ask me, I’d say you should enjoy your smoked fish with caution. If you are someone that only enjoys an occasional smoked fish meal—and are not a daily consumer—then PAH from smoked fish and other foods is most likely not a health concern for you.