Processed meat has hit the media a lot recently. Health and wellbeing issues are always of interest, as they have an impact on our day to day sense of contentment. We all aspire to make better, healthier food choices, and we, therefore, pay attention to all advice on what we eat. Unfortunately, the lessons can often be contradictory, leaving us feeling confused about whether we can eat a foodstuff or not.
The advice on processed meat feels particularly contradictory. Meat feels essential within the national cuisine of Britain. When we summon up British food, we think of meat and potatoes at the core. Therefore, it is difficult for many of us to contemplate leaving processed meats out of our diet.
The government have been transparent that we should cut down on our consumption of cooked, process meat. They suggest that we should only eat 70g a day – this equates to two sausages or a single burger.
What is processed meat?
The terms used might make you worried about what is seen as healthy and what is not. The word ‘processed’ relates to manufacturing or preparation. Therefore, sausages, bacon, hot dogs and salami are all processed meats. Any tinned meat is also considered to be processed meat. In general, healthier eating requires you to choose products that are as natural as possible.
Processed food means additives. Artificial ingredients are added to the food to help in its preparation, making it look more appetizing when cooked and on your plate.
Why is processed meat considered unhealthy?
Reports have linked processed meats to many chronic diseases, including heart disease, COPD, some cancers and high blood pressure.
One of the additives is salt, which is used to cure or prolong the life of the meat. The salt sucks out water from the meat that would otherwise advance the rotting of the product. When we cook, and so rehydrate the meat, this salt becomes concentrated. It is this excessive salt intake that is known to be linked to hypertension or high blood pressure. As processed meats contain a lot of salt, it is part of generalized advice to manage your salt intake. Although a single piece of bacon wouldn’t hurt, you must take into consideration the amount of salt that is added to other foodstuffs in our diet.
Sodium chloride is also high in processed meat. This is also known as table salt. It is most often used to add flavor to the meat. Diets high in sodium chloride could increase the risk of stomach cancer.
Nitrite, N-nitroso Compounds
However, we have other additives in red meat that are maybe even more concerning than salt. There are nitrite, N-nitroso compounds and nitrosamines. These compounds are known to be carcinogenic, linked to some cancers. These are used for the preservation of the meat, ensuring it maintains its red/ pink color rather than turning grey. They are also used to improve flavor and prevent the growth of bacteria.
Where else would you expect to see these compounds? Well, you would take them in from contaminated drinking water, tobacco smoke, and salted and pickled foods. These nitrosamines are most troublesome in processed meats because they are formed when the processed meat is exposed to high heat – above 130 degrees Celsius. There has been much concern in the medical community that there is a link between these nitrosamines and bowel cancer.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
PAHs are substances formed when organic matter burns. The smoking of meat is a conventional means of preserving meat and can result in the formation of these harmful substances. PAHs are transferred into the air with the smoke, and it can accumulate on the surface of the meat product. Therefore, you will likely find PAHs where the meat is barbequed, grilled or roasted over an opening fire.
If you use burning wood or charcoal, when dripping fat burns on a hot surface, if charcoal accumulates on the surface of the meat PAHs can form. If you eat smoked bacon, you are more likely to take in PAHs.
The health risks of PAHs are high. It is thought they contribute to many adverse health conditions – including numerous forms of cancer.
Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)
Another chemical compound found in processed meats cooked at high temperatures is HCAs. As with PAHs, HCAs are thought to contribute to several types of cancer. Even though the amount of HCAs in the human diet would need to be significantly higher to promote a risk of cancer, it would be best to cook meat gently at a lower heat to reduce risk.
The link between processed meat, red meat, and bowel cancer
One of the most commonly cited health risks when eating processed, and red meat is the possibility of bowel cancer. World Cancer Research Fund has demonstrated in a meta-analysis of studies that for every 100 grams of red meat you eat, you increase your bowel cancer risk by 17%. They claim there is seemingly no safe level of processed meats. For every 50 grams of processed meat you consume, you increase your chance of bowel cancers by 18%.
Cancer Research supports the findings of the World Cancer Fund. They state that 21% of bowel cancers and 3% of all other cancers are a consequence of eating red or processed meat. This means that processed meat is as likely to cause cancer as plutonium, arsenic, asbestos and tobacco.
What healthier choices should we make?
Human beings are a funny species. We deeply resent being told what we cannot eat. So, as well as warn you of the harmful chemicals in processed meats, it will also be more effective if we suggest healthier options. You can easily replace meat with soy-based products. If you are concerned about protein in your diet, try eating fatty fish, nuts and seeds instead. Gently cooking chicken is a healthier option than grilling bacon.
However, a sensible message is to cut back and eat such processed meats sparingly. Remember, your chances of cancer are proportional to the number of such meats you eat. Therefore, you can lower your risk by reducing your portion.