Are smoky BBQ-flavoured chips a health risk?

With summer in full swing, Canadians are gearing up for BBQ season, eagerly reaching for their favourite smoked-flavoured chips and barbecue treats. However, while these snacks are a staple of summer gatherings, Europe’s recent ban on smoked flavours due to potential genotoxicity concerns is prompting a closer look at their safety.

In April, the European Union (EU) moved to ban several artificial smoke flavourings found in popular foods such as chips, cheese, barbecue sauce and ham, citing potential health concerns related to cancer.

Flavours such as smoky bacon chips will be phased out across all EU countries over the next two to five years. According to a European Commission report published in April, cancer risks are linked to the purification process of smoke, including the removal of components like tar and ash, before the flavouring is added to food.

“The relevant decisions are based on scientific assessments by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which concluded that for all eight smoke flavourings assessed, genotoxicity concerns are either confirmed or can’t be ruled out,” the report stated.

To achieve that smoky taste in snacks, sauces, and soups, food manufacturers often turn to smoked flavourings. These flavourings are created through a process called pyrolysis, where wood is burned and the smoke is carefully purified. This purification removes harmful elements like ash and tar, leaving behind a concentrated liquid smoke that can be added to food, according to the EFSA.

But the EFSA’s research linked smoky flavourings to genotoxicity, which is the ability of a chemical to damage the genetic material of cells, increasing the risk of developing conditions like cancer and inherited diseases, the agency warned.

Some of the chemicals the EFSA cited in smoked flavours include styrene, which has been labelled as a probable carcinogenic for humans, and benzenediol, classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as another possible carcinogenic substance.

Due to genotoxicity concerns, the EFSA said it couldn’t establish a safe level of consumption for smoky flavourings. Since the possibility of DNA damage couldn’t be ruled out, a ban on the eight smoky flavours was deemed the most appropriate course of action.Europe may be saying goodbye to smoky flavours, but Canadians can still grab bags for the time being, according to Health Canada.

Health Canada told Media Wednesday that it is aware of the European concerns.

“Smoke flavourings are available on the Canadian market but must be safe when used as directed. Canada’s Food and Drugs Act prohibits a person from selling a food that contains a poisonous or harmful substance, which allows Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to take risk management action should a food be determined to be unsafe for consumption for any reason, including use of an inappropriate smoke flavouring,” a spokesperson stated in an email.

Health Canada and the CFIA have several surveillance programs in place to continuously monitor the levels of chemical contaminants in the food supply, the spokesperson said.

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