In a nutshell…
Consuming large amounts of processed meat may cause cancer. Consuming small amounts of high-quality processed meat that isn’t overcooked is ok.
Is it true? I think there is legitimacy to their claims. But I think many of the headlines about the research are misleading. For example, PBS says that, “Bacon, sausage and other processed meats are now ranked alongside cigarettes and asbestos as known carcinogens, the World Health Organization announced today.” PBS Newshour
They did rank processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, but that doesn’t mean processed meats are as equally dangerous as cigarettes and asbestos. 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, yes, I think we should take a look at our consumption of processed meat. But I think the amount of processed meat you eat and the kind of processed meat you eat makes a big difference.
Ahem, Katie, why eat it at all if there’s a potential cancer risk involved? Well, because there are also health benefits to eating meat (even bacon and sausage). And when eaten in moderation there is no proven cancer risk. And it’s yummy (this last reason is not a valid argument). 🙂
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. Authority Nutrition
Ok, are you officially freaked out now? Well, maybe you should be, and maybe you shouldn’t be—depending on how much processed meat you eat, the quality of processed meat you buy, and how burnt you like it. 😉
WHAT TO DO?
I think 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.
Right now I eat high quality sausage or bacon about three times a month. I also save my bacon grease and use it for cooking. I’m going to cut it down to twice a month. Does that seem moderate to you? (Moderate is such a relative term). In some of the articles I’ve read they suggest eating processed meat only on special occasions. So maybe I’ll be cutting back even more in the future. We’ll see. Hey, I’m open to changing my diet based on new knowledge. Maybe.
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.
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.
What do you think about this research on processed meat? Are you going to change your processed meat consumption at all? Or do you feel good about your current program?
Here are some related articles if you’d like to peruse: