Growing up, I was a hot dog lover. The irresistible combination of Heinz ketchup, yellow mustard, and a sweet ballpark-like bun paired with an ultra-processed Oscar Meyer hot dog, was my jam. Anyone else? These days though, I rarely eat hot dogs, or any type of processed meats for that matter.
In this post we’ll explore why certain processed meats have been found to be harmful to our health, how to define processed meats, and what to be on the lookout for.
Processed Meats 101
Meats such as ham, certain types of prosciutto, sausage, beef jerky, bacon, deli meats, hot dogs, etc., unfortunately, all fall under the “processed” meat category. Meaning, they’ve undergone some sort of process for the purpose of preservation, flavor, and color.
Processed meats are generally defined as meats that have been modified through curing, fermentation, salting, smoking, or otherwise, for the purpose of improving shelf life and/or enhancing flavor.
While processed meats are often extremely tasty and a great addition to any meal, they’re often loaded with salt and, for the most part, preserved using nitrite-based preservatives.
What are nitrite-based preservatives?
Processed meats are most often preserved using nitrite-based preservatives such as sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate. These preservatives, shares Healthline, are added to “help improve the meat’s color, prevent growth of harmful bacteria, and add a salty flavor.”
Unfortunately, in recent years, various studies have found that these types of preservatives, along with a number of other components present in processed meat such as heterocyclic amines (HCA), polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAH), and high fat, have been linked to an increased risk for developing certain types of cancers, particularly colon cancer. In fact, the majority of studies reported that nitrite-containing processed meat was associated with increased risk of colon cancer. You can read the PubMed studies here.
Although nitrites on their own aren’t harmful (e.g., nitrates and nitrites occur naturally in many vegetables and are even produced by our own bodies) the process certain types of nitrites undergo when processed or cooked may be.
When nitrite-treated meats are cooked, the nitrites interact with the amino acids/amines (naturally found in protein) and create a chemical compound known as nitrosamines. These nitrosamines have been found to be carcinogenic and cause for concern amongst researchers.
For example, “an analysis of data from 10 studies, reports the International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”
Eating processed meats can also increase your risk of other potentially life threatening diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke and type II diabetes compared to other protein sources such as poultry, legumes and fish.
Consciously Selecting & Preparing Processed Meats
1. Whenever possible, I find it’s best to purchase processed and cured meats from local farmers, i.e. cured meats that aren’t mass produced.
2. Look for meats that have been cured using traditional methods. For ex: prosciutto that has been cured using only salt.
3. If you’re going to cook processed meats, such as bacon or sausage, make sure to cook at lower temperatures, i.e. you want your bacon to be less crispy and not burnt.
4. If you’re truly concerned, best to eat processed meats very sparingly and/or skip altogether. Note: The World Health Organization declared in 2015 that processed meats should be avoided entirely.
5. Opt for fresh (unprocessed) meat, such as poultry and fish, whenever possible.
What about uncured and nitrite-free labeled meats?
It’s important to note that “nitrate-free” and “uncured meat” isn’t always better. As Charlotte Vallaeys, senior food and nutrition policy analyst at Consumer report shares: “No nitrites’ doesn’t mean no nitrites…instead, it means that the nitrates and nitrites used to “cure”—or preserve and flavor—meat come from celery or other natural sources, not synthetic ones.” In fact, their chemical compositions are pretty much the same and have similar health effects. Note: Research is currently ongoing around the health impacts “natural” preservatives, such as celery powder, have on consumers.
Should I never eat processed meat again?
I think it’s important to note here that “studies on processed meat consumption in humans are all observational in nature. They show that people who eat processed meat are more likely to get these diseases, but they can not prove that the processed meat caused them.” Or as one study put it, “colon cancer is altered depending on dietary pattern rather than simply the consumption of a particular food.”
As with most ongoing research, nothing is black or white and many factors (dietary patterns, genetics, sex, geographic location, etc.) need to be factored in before making a conclusive blanket statement.
However, as shares Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “the current evidence suggests the higher intake of processed meat, the higher the risk of chronic diseases and mortality.”
The good news? It seems as though eating small amounts of processed meats every so often, once or twice a month, is unlikely to have an appreciable health impact.
My goal in sharing all this isn’t to convince you to never eat processed meats again. Whether you decide to avoid processed meats altogether or simply limit your intake, is a personal decision. Personally, my husband and I have decided (made the choice) to remove processed meats from our diet as much as possible. We will of course be flexible and make exceptions (we aren’t “scared” that a hot dog or slice of ham every so often will harm us in the long run) but processed meats (deli, ham, sausage, etc.) will no longer be part of our staple diet.