Spicy poison: How contaminated suya exposes consumers to health risks
VICTOR AYENI writes about the unhygienic practices of suya sellers, the danger inherent in the consumption of processed meat and their overall health implications on the populace
The yellow flame from the hot coals flickered with the evening wind as puffs of smoke mixed with the aroma of spices diffused from the suya spot to the passersby on the busy street corner.
Jubril, who hails from Borno State, introduced our correspondent to his friend simply named Bashiru, who grills suya in the Ojodu, Berger area of Lagos State, as they conversed in Hausa language.
“I told him that you are my good customer and he should sell you quality suya,” said Jubril, as he took his seat on a bench close to the grill.
“I didn’t want you to patronise that other mai suya (suya selller) over there,” Jubril whispered to this reporter, pointing at another trader, who also grilled suya not too far away.
“People complain that his meat pieces are expensive and not that fresh,” he added.
With a gas lantern hung in the background which illuminated the space and added a sort of ambience to the stand, Bashiru cut a part of the meat, garnished it with a delicate mix of pepper spice and gave it to our reporter for the customary “tasting.”
This seemingly simple gesture of tasting establishes a relationship between the suya maker and a potential customer and also helps to gauge how good the suya is and how much of it should be purchased.
Our correspondent also gathered that if a mai suya does not give his customer a piece of meat for tasting, he either dislikes the person or his suya is distasteful.
Suya is probably the most popular delicacy of grilled meat sold on street corners across Nigeria.
It is a skewered meat made from ram or chicken, roasted and served with a mix of spices known as yaji which gives it a unique aroma and taste.
The thinly sliced meat is also marinated in a traditional Hausa dehydrated peanut cookie called ‘kwulikwuli,’ salt, vegetable oil and other spices and flavour, and then barbecued.
A food scientist, Chibuike Benjamin, described suya as a meal with nutritional properties important to the human body.
“Studies have shown that the beef or lamb from which suya is made contains nutritional properties such as vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, iron, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. Suya is also high in sodium and calories.
“The zinc nutrient helps the body to restore damaged tissue and promotes a healthy immune system. Suya also contains iron, and vitamins B12 and B6, which all play an important role in keeping your immune system in good health,” he noted.
Suya is believed to have originated with the Hausa people in northern Nigeria, but it is now popular all over the country and most of all in Lagos.
The gastronomic delicacy, which cuts across every social stratum, is often sold at joints, pubs, and pleasure spots, particularly at night.
Speaking through a translator, Bashiru explained to Sunday PUNCH how the meat used for suya is processed.
He said, “First of all in the morning, we purchase the beef from the market. It is obtained from cows and the meat is washed once or twice. We then cut it into long slices and spread it out. You have to ensure that the meat is laid out flat.
“The meat is then cooked on the grill when it is red hot and oil is regularly used to brush the grill rack and the meat is regularly turned as it gets done. This makes the meat soft and tender.
“So, before customers start thronging the spot, you will finely cut the meat, thread them onto sticks, grill them and set them aside to await customers and reheat them in the flame as you select.”
An undergraduate of Yaba College of Technology, Olasunkanmi Oyelowo, however, recalled having a stomach upset after consuming suya.
“I bought some suya that night with a friend because the aroma was irresistible. It was a N500 worth of suya. I wanted to give myself a treat and I didn’t notice anything unusual while buying or eating the meat.
“But I was awoken later that night by an excruciating stomach pain, which made me bent over as I sat on the toilet bowl. I couldn’t sleep well for the rest of the night.
“I had to get some medicines the next day. I suspected it had something to do with that suya because I’ve never had a stomach upset that bad,” he said.
Expressing anxiety about the quality of meat used for suya, a retired school principal in Ibadan, Oyo State, Mrs Kehinde Omotola, said there was a suya maker in the area reported to be using contaminated meat.
“You know, because of the heavy spice, you might not easily detect this, but people were having various complaints after patronising him and I had to stop buying his suya as well. There is no way to ascertain what kind of meat he sells,” she added.
Our correspondent visited four suya spots in the Obafemi Owode Local Government of Ogun State, where he observed as suya meat pieces were wrapped in newspapers with a sprinkling of marinade mix, fresh tomato wedges, red onions and thinly sliced cabbage.
A 2016 study conducted by researchers in the Department of Food Engineering at the University of Ilorin, published in the Ukrainian Journal of Food Science, identified the packaging of suya meat with newspapers as a major unhygienic source of contamination.
“The processors have been accustomed to collecting old newspapers from different homes and using the same to package suya meat for their customers, which are considered to be dirty and dusty, also in some homes where chemicals were being used to control insects like cockroaches and mosquitoes.
“There is a tendency of the chemicals being sprayed on the newspapers, which the chemicals, when in contact with the meat and the meat and being consumed, can pose serious health issues.
“Besides, the printed ink on the papers contains pigments, colourants, binders, additives, and photoinitiators, which can be harmful to the health of the consumers,” the study explained.
When our correspondent visited Bashiru on another occasion, he observed that although the table on which his grill rack was placed was elevated, some of the dust swirling from the human and vehicular movement around him were settling on the skewered meat on the rack.
Sunday PUNCH also observed that the suya being sold were handled with bare hands by the mai suyas without any recourse to hand washing or sanitisation before and after.
On several occasions, our reporter watched as mai suyas collected dirty naira notes or randomly scratched their body parts with the same hand used to hold the suya, onion, and tomatoes, while cutting them for customers.
Commenting on these unhygienic practices by suya grillers, a Lagos-based nutritionist, Mr Emmanuel Udoh, said the condition of the processed meat as of the time it was purchased contributed to the contamination.
He explained that the quality of water used to wash the meat to be used for suya as well as the hygienic level of the environment and other utensils used could pose health risks to many consumers.
Udoh said, “Speaking of the hygiene condition, we are not really certain of the condition of the meat being used; whether they are spoiled, almost spoiling or good-to-eat.
“Most bacterial meat spoilage is caused by lactic acid bacteria; these include many species such as lactobacillus, leuconostoc, pediococcus and streptococcus, which are physiologically related to a group of fastidious and ubiquitous gram-positive organisms.
“The other possible sources of contamination are through the slaughtering of sick animals, washing the meat with dirty water by butchers, inappropriate exposure of the suya meat, contamination by flies through processing done close to dirty places, contaminated equipment such as knife and other utensils, and addition of spices that are not healthy to the body.”
Also, a clinical pharmacist, Mr James Ucheaga, during an interview with Sunday PUNCH, revealed that suya consumption made infestations with parasitic worms easier.
He said, “Some animals before slaughter are infested with cysts of worms such as tapeworms and other worms. Cows and pigs are intermediate hosts of these organisms and humans who consume uncooked or not properly cooked meat, can consume these cysts in these animals, which hatch to become tapeworms that attach to the gastrointestinal tract (intestines) of the consumer.
“Generally, worms, especially tapeworms, are parasites. They have hooks and suckers, which they use to attach and suck nutrients from the intestine of the person, thereby leaving the individual malnourished.”
Ucheaga added that other infections can result from unhygienic conditions and unsanitary practices mai suyas follow.
“The condition in which suya is prepared is most times very unhygienic. For instance, they do not wash their hands after handling dirty materials and dust frequently settles on the meat. Microbes are known to thrive in areas that are not hygienic.
“The flame that is used to prepare these meats is often the yellow part, which scientists will tell you is unlike the blue flame. It doesn’t kill these parasitic cysts; it only grills the external part of the meat.
“Furthermore, people who consume suya, especially lots of it, can develop bacterial infections such as salmonella typhi infection, leading to typhoid fever,” he added.
Dangers of processed meat
Processed meat refers to any meat that has been transformed from its fresh form by salting, fermentation, smoking or other ways of improving meat preservation or enhancing its flavours.
Suya, and its dried, harder version (kilishi), involves processing methods and the extension of its shelf-life with a variety of spices.
But the World Health Organisation has raised the alarm about the health implications of regular consumption of such processed meat as suya.
A 2015 report stated that a limited intake of processed meat will reduce the rate of cardiovascular diseases and obesity.
It said, “National governments and WHO are responsible for developing nutritional guidelines. This evaluation by International Agency for Research on Cancer reinforces a 2002 recommendation from WHO that people who eat meat should moderate the consumption of processed meat to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
“Some other dietary guidelines also recommend limiting consumption of red meat or processed meat, but these are focused mainly on reducing the intake of fat and sodium, which are risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and obesity.”
Included in this list of processed meat were bacon, sausages, hot dogs, corned beef, beef jerky, and ham as well as canned meat and meat-based sauces.
Suya linked to cancer
Ucheaga, during the interview with our correspondent, disclosed that suya consumption was linked to increase in cancers.
He said, “According to research, the consumption of suya has been linked to increase in cancers, especially colorectal cancers. In fact, there is an 18 per cent chance of developing colorectal cancer with regular consumption of suya.
“According to IARC, suya, which is processed meat, has been classified with carcinogenic agents such as plutonium and alcohol, although the risk of developing colorectal cancer remains small, it actually increases with frequent consumption.”
In one of his Instagram videos, a physician, Dr Chinonso Egemba (popularly known as Aproko Doctor), warned people against consuming suya that is not properly made, adding that consuming such can lead to cancer.
Egemba explained that when meat is prepared over open flames, it creates chemicals known as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), also known to be carcinogenic.
He said, “When you burn meat over open flames, it creates chemicals known as PAHs or heterocyclic imines.
“These particular compounds may get activated by certain enzymes in your body that end up damaging your DNA, and damage to this DNA leads to cancer.
“These chemicals have been shown to cause changes in the DNA of cells. These changes make it easier for a person to develop cancer.
“The risk of getting cancer is higher if the meat is thoroughly cooked and there are black charcoal marks on the meat itself. Some cancers such as colon cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic and even breast cancer have been linked to this.
“These compounds: hydroxycitric acid, and protocatechuic acid, damage DNA, but only after certain enzymes have activated them. These enzymes and their activities vary from one person to the other, hence there are different risks in developing cancer, especially if there is a family history of cancer.”
The medical expert urged people to ensure that their meat is grilled in an oven instead of an open flame.
“Ensure your meat is not cooked over open flames, you can air fry your meat or grill it in the oven and not over an open flame.
“I know some of you will swear that it is that black side of the meat that is sweeter than the other part, remove that black side because those burnt parts that are exposed contain a higher concentration of this compound.
“Eat smaller portions of grilled meat. I know yes, you have suffered in life and you want to reward yourself with N5,000 suya, but that is not the way to do things,” the physician added.
Speaking to Sunday PUNCH, a senior dietician, Adeola Adeleye, explained that Heterocyclic Amines are formed when creatinine (found in the muscle of meat) and amino acids react at high temperatures.
“PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over a heated surface or open fire drip onto the surface or fire causing flame and smoke.
“Whether it is well-done, grilled or barbecued chicken or steak, they all have high concentrations of HCAs and cooking methods that expose meat to smoke contribute to the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon formation. These carbons in foods can result in cancer through the damage of our DNA,” he added.
In a report, the Illinois Department of Public Health explained that PAHs are also present in products derived from fossil fuels and are capable of negatively affecting the eyes, kidneys and liver.
It read partly, “Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. They are also present in products made from fossil fuels, such as coal-tar pitch, creosote, and asphalt.
“PAHs are made whenever substances are burned. In the home, PAHs are present in tobacco smoke, smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, creosote-treated wood products and some foods.
“Barbecuing, smoking, or charring food over a fire greatly increases the amount of PAHs in the food. Breathing smoke or coming into contact with contaminated soil exposes people to PAHs. Some PAHs may cause cancer and affect the eyes, kidneys, and liver.”
Udoh, the nutritionist, also pointed out the potential health threats posed by heavy metal contamination due to the grill rake used for suya making.
These chemicals, he stated, could also accumulate in body tissues, resulting in metabolic problems and also cancer.
“The threat to human health could result from contamination with heavy metals, especially lead, cadmium and arsenic, which could come from the grill rake being used.
“These heavy metals become toxic when they are not metabolised by the body and accumulate in tissues.
“These chemicals are dangerous and as they accumulate in the body, they have been deposited in as food residues during preparation; it results in cancer over a long period of time,” he stated.
Mix suya with vegetables
A Professor of Community and Public Health Nutrition at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Ngozi Nnam, during a presentation in Abuja, noted that while there was a link between suya consumption and increased risk of cancer, the addition of onions and other vegetables to suya could lower the possibilities.
Nnam said, “Eating suya can actually cause cancer and this comes from the reaction of meat and the smoke during suya preparation, which results in a toxic compound that can cause cancer.
“Smoking of meat is what causes cancer. Some metabolites from food can cause cancer. What is important is to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables to increase antioxidants in the body.
“The antioxidants can neutralise the effect of the toxic metabolite from food to prevent cancer. It is good to eat suya with onions and other fruits and vegetables.”
A group of researchers at the University of Porto, Portugal, also recommended that barbecued meat or suya is healthier when eaten with beer.
The lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Dr Isabel Ferreira, said the recommendation was given following the results of various experiments conducted by the scientists.
Ferreira explained that cancer-causing chemicals and molecules such as PAHs are formed through the process of grilling or barbecuing meat and some chemicals in beer could neutralise them.
She said, “One way of stopping PAH-formation might be to apply chemicals called antioxidants that mop up free radicals. And beer is rich in these in the shape of melanoidins, which forms when barley is roasted.”
In one of the experiments conducted, Ferraira and her colleagues prepared some beer marinades, bought some meat and headed for the griddle.
“One of their marinades was based on Pilsner, a pale lager. A second was based on a black beer since black beers have more melanoidins than light beers.
“The meat steeped in the black-beer marinade formed fewer PAHs than those steeped in the light-beer marinade, which in turn formed fewer than the control meat left unmarinated in beer,” she added.
Ferreira, however, cautioned against over-consumption of barbecued meat with beer or other forms of alcohol that might not have been sourced from barley.
Speaking on the need to explore better ways to treat gastrointestinal diseases, the President of the National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria, Prof. Musa Borodo, advised people to avoid taking burnt plantain (boli), burnt suya and refined drinks in order to avoid cancer.
He added that people should take natural foods, avoid refined sugar, eat well, exercise regularly, drink clean water, visit hospitals for routine checkups and stay away from smoking.
Adeleye, however, advised that people considerably reduce their consumption of suya.
“The best thing is for people to reduce their consumption of suya to less than once a week or once every other week,” she said.