Suya and the cancer controversy


The controversy surrounding the link between consumption of barbecued or roasted meat and the risk of development of cancer is as old as the hills. In Nigeria, the local skewered savoury beef or chicken popularly called Suya, carries the can.

Traditionally prepared by the Hausa, the thinly sliced meat is garnished in a complex mixture of spices, salt, vegetable oil and other flavourings and additives which make up the Suya marinade (known as Yaji) and then barbecued before being served with dried pepper mixed with spices and sliced onions, cabbage and tomatoes.

The dried version of the Suya known as Kilishi is just as popular particularly in the northern part of Nigeria.

Suya is very tasty and much savoured by Nigerians from all walks of life. A trip to any of the big hotels in the nation’s cities and particularly to the local and international wings of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, attests to this.

In June this year, I attended a nutrition function in Lagos where a professor of nutrition, Prof. Ignatius Onimawo, advised regular consumers of the local skewered beef or chicken popularly called Suya, to eat the delicacy with generous portions of the slices of onions, cabbage, tomatoes and other vegetables.

A fortnight ago, I encountered the professor again at another nutrition event also in Lagos where he again spoke at length about the health hazards of suya consumption.

Like he did during the first event, Orimawo, a researcher and lecturer at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, revealed how research had shown a strong link between consumption of suya and increased risk of cancer. According to the nutritionist, the same research had proved that consumption of suya garnished with onions and other vegetables, has a strong cancer-lowering effect.

Recalling a warning by the World Health Organisation, WHO, that except there is deliberate effort to imbibe healthier dietary and lifestyle habits over the next 10 years, cancer and other Non Communicable Diseases, NCDs, would increase by more than 27 percent in developing countries like Nigeria, compared to 17 percent in the developed world. In his view, dietary habits play a major role in outcome of our health and one of this is cancer.

“Take breast cancer for an example, its incidence used to be very low among our women in those days and it was even tagged oyinbo disease because it was very rare in Nigeria or in Africa for that matter. But today, this is no longer the case.

Breast cancer is everywhere. It is even killing people in the village. When we carried out studies to try to look at the etiology of the disease, to find out where it all started, what we discovered was that we could trace the origin to suya consumption,” Orimawo admonished.

In the second event, Orimawo spoke at length about the hazards of the consumption of Suya had reservations about the Mai Shani (oil used in suya preparation). “The suya meat already contains enough fat, now the oil sprinkled on it is also from fat, that is why it kept by the fire to keep it in liquid form. It is highly saturated, and drips into the fire sending up smoke that contains carcinogens.”

Narrowing down the conversation to suya preparation, he remarked: “During preparation of suya, the meat is cooked over an open fire, and oils from the meat undergo complex chemical reactions that produce toxins that are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in nature. Meat cooked over open flame often causes the formation of toxic compounds known as Heterocyclic Amines, HCAs, which are carcinogenic. The more well-done meat is cooked, the higher concentration of carcinogenic HCAs can form.”

Explaining that cancer is due to oxidative processes in the body, he said onions are powerful antioxidants that effectively stop the oxidative process triggered by consumption of suya from taking place.

Further, Onimawo said one of the outcomes of the findings was that women, who consume suya, are more prone to cancer (breast cancer) than men because they (women) tend to consume just the suya and ignore the vegetables.

“Men eat onions, women eat suya: “This is practically proven. Many young men, take girls out and buy suya to entertain them. Normally, apart from the spices sprinkled on the meat, the suya is served with slices of onions, cabbage and tomatoes in some cases.

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“The onion and other vegetables are actually added to act as antidote to the effect of the oil from the suya. Onions neutralise the oxidative effect of the chemicals in the oil and help prevent cancer, but because the young man wants to impress the girl, he will be eating the onions, while the girl eats the suya. At the end of the day he is preventing cancer, unknowingly, while the girl is eating the cancer.”

A number of studies support the use of local spices such as ginger, clove, red pepper, black pepper, onion, thyme, oregano and garlic in a meat marinade before grilling also drastically reduce any carcinogens that normally would form on grilled meat.

The suya sauce, a.k.a. Yaji, comprising most of these spices is believed to help ameliorate possible negative effects of the roasted red meat. However, findings link excessive consumption to possible kidney damage. The antioxidants in rosemary and thyme from a marinade were specifically cited in studies at being powerful inhibitors of HCA formation when grilling meats.

Essentially, when meat is grilled, broiled, or seared, carcinogenic HCAs are formed. However, when meat is cooked in a water base the dangerous HCAs are eliminated. So meats cooked in a soup or crock pot will not have the problem of the carcinogenic HCAs and is a healthier way to cook meat.

Remember that the more well-done a meat is cooked, the higher concentration of carcinogenic HCA’s can form, so rare, medium-rare, or medium are healthier choices than well-done. If you like your roast or barbecued meat well-done, remember that you may be eating a lot more carcinogens than meat that not as well cooked. So make sure to load up on using spices to drastically reduce the formation of HCAs on grilled meat!

Source: Saturday Vanguard

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