When meat or fish is cooked directly over fire, it gets covered with cancer-causing carcinogens, making it more dangerous than even smoking or consumption of alcohol, surgical gasteroentrologist Dr S M Chandramohan said.
As a part of an ongoing study, Government General Hospital's department of surgical gastroenterology asked five undergraduate medical students to quiz 101 cancer patients about their lifestyle and eating habits and compare them with answers to the same questions by healthy people.
Statistical analysis of the data gathered showed that people eating smoked meat were at up to nine times higher risk of developing cancer compared to people who did not have it on their diet. The study found that people who smoked had an eight times higher risk of contracting cancer than others and those who consumed alcohol were at four times higher risk.
This is not the first time smoked meat has been linked to cancer. The National Cancer Institute in the USA has linked barbequed or grilled meat to cancer. Coal or gas used to cook meat emits chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) that adhere to meat. Laboratory tests show these substances can cause cancer in animals.
"Some studies have linked occupational exposure to PAH to cancer in humans," Dr Chandramohan said. Food experts say when salty, fatty meat exposed to smoke of wood or coal absorbs large amounts of tar, which may contain carcinogens. "In that sense, eating smoked meat isn't very different from smoking tobacco," said Dr Rajendran Vellaisamy, who was a part of the study.
The researchers admit that various factors outside the study are linked to cancer, but say the risks they found should be considered. For instance, during the interviews, many people with cancer, par ticularly those in lower socioeconomic groups, said they ate sutta karuvadu (dried fish cooked in direct fire) or leftover rice with karuvadu fry (deep fried dried fish).
"Many households reuse oil and that could be one of the factors that triggered cancer," Rajendran said. "We're not saying 'no deep fries or smoked meat at all'. We do not have direct evidence to say that with certainty. But the study helps us know which foods are high-risk and should be avoided."