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The facts behind processed meats

What are they, anyway?

Karen Miller
The facts behind processed meats
(Photo: Evan Swigart)

Dietitians warn us not to eat processed meat. That’s all well and good, but in order to heed their advice it is helpful to know exactly what it is.

The definition is simple, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Processed meats are meats that are preserved by smoking, curing, salting or addition of any chemical preservatives. That includes bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs and even deli meats, such as bologna or pastrami.

They’re mostly red meats, like beef, pork and lamb, but poultry is not exempt. Sausage and processed meats from turkey and chicken are included in the taboo list.

These meats taste so good, but apparently, are not very good for you. Studies by the AICR concluded that eating even small amounts of processed meats on a regular basis increases the risk of colorectal cancer. The more you eat the greater the risk. For instance, studies have found that eating three and a half ounces of these meats every day — about the size of a large hot dog — increases colorectal cancer by more than a third.

The correlation between these meats and cancer is not clear, but scientists offer a few theories. Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals used to preserve color and prevent spoilage. Studies have found that nitrates form carcinogens, or cancer-causing compounds.

Smoked meats contain PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that are formed at high heat. PAHs are also considered cancer-causing. In addition, heme, an iron found in red meat, may damage the lining of the colon, eventually resulting in colorectal cancer.

Nitrate-free hot dogs and other products on the market claim to be healthier. More research is necessary, according to the AICR, to determine if the claims are true.

Processed meats do more damage than just cancer. Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health found that, on average, eating 1.8 ounces of processed meat every day, which is about two slices of deli meats or one hot dog, increased the risk of heart disease by 42 percent and diabetes by 19 percent.

One can see how relatively easy it is to fall within that range. It is not unusual for a person to consume a ham or salami sandwich every day for lunch.

The researchers from Harvard further concluded that the sodium and nitrate might be the major culprits responsible for cardiovascular disease. Sodium increases blood pressure and nitrate preservatives can promote atherosclerosis and reduce glucose tolerance, both of which increase risk of heart disease and diabetes.

An occasional hot dog is not damaging, but dietitians recommend healthy substitutes for processed meats. Fresh chicken or fish can replace deli meats; vegetarian sausages can sub for bacon; kidney beans or chickpeas can replace sausage in chili.

It’s been found that people who eat a lot of processed meat tend to eat less plant-based foods. That’s unfortunate. Plant-based foods have cancer-protective properties.

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