In a nutshell…
Consuming large amounts of processed meat may cause cancer. Consuming small amounts of high-quality processed meat that isn’t overcooked seems to be ok.
Have you seen the headlines? The World Health Organization recently announced that consuming processed meat causes cancer (specifically colon and colorectal cancer) BBC News, PBS Newshour.
They ranked processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program (who conducted the study) says that, “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.” IARC
So, what exactly is considered processed meat?
Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying, or canning. So we’re talking about sausage, hot dogs, salami, bacon, ham, corned beef, smoked meat, dried meat, beef jerky, and canned meat.
What is harmful about these preservation methods?
Sodium Nitrite: sodium nitrite is added to processed meat to preserve the red/pink color of meat, to improve flavor by suppressing fat oxidization, and to prevent the growth of bacteria. Nitrite in processed foods can turn into harmful nitrosamines when exposed to high heat (like when frying or grilling). Nitrosamines may increase the risk of stomach and bowel cancer. (You can buy processed meat that doesn’t have added sodium nitrite).
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): PAHs form when organic matter burns. They are transferred into the air with smoke and accumulate on the surface of smoked meat products and meat that is barbecued, grilled, or roasted over an open fire. So, smoked meat can be high in PAHs. Studies in animals have found that high levels of PAHs may cause cancer.
Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): HCAs are chemical compounds that form when meat and fish is cooked under high temperatures like when grilling or frying. They aren’t restricted to processed meat, but significant amounts can be found in sausage, bacon, and burgers. HCAs cause cancer when given to animals in high amounts, but these amounts are much higher than what is found in the human diet.
Sodium Chloride: sodium chloride (salt) is used to preserve processed foods. And while adding salt to your food in moderate amounts is good for you, eating a lot of processed food can lead to too much salt in your diet. Harvard School of Public Health
What to do?
There are a couple different approaches to processed meat consumption that are healthy:
- eliminate processed meat from your diet
- buy no-nitrate-added, pasture-raised meat; cook it on low heat without burning it; eat it in moderation.
Where to find the best processed meat:
I buy Beeler’s bacon and sausage. This is what their packaging claims about their bacon: no artificial ingredients and only minimally processed. Pork is from hogs raised without antibiotics or growth promotants, and are vegetarian fed. No nitrates or nitrites added except for the naturally occurring nitrates in sea salt and celery powder.
Here’s the ingredient list for their hickory smoked uncured bacon: pork, water, sea salt, turbinado sugar, celery powder.
Their maple flavored sausage packaging says that it has no artificial ingredients, no added preservatives, all natural, MSG & gluten free, animals raised without antibiotics or growth promotants and are vegetarian fed, only minimally processed.
The ingredients for the maple flavored sausage include: beeler pork, sea salt, natural maple extract flavor, spices (sage, red pepper, black pepper), turbinado sugar.
I buy my Beeler’s meat from Real Foods Market.
Here’s a list of 36 Packaged Meats That Are Actually Natural And Good For You, and of course finding a local farm that provides pasture-raised, organic, minimally processed meat is always a good option.
Tip: eliminate processed meat from your diet; or buy no-nitrate-added, high-quality processed meat, cook it on low heat, and eat it in moderation.
Here are some related articles if you’d like to peruse:
New health warning explained: How processed meat is linked to cancer.
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