Less Is More with Processed Meats

April 2, 2013 in Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

For readers of this blog, it will not come as a news flash that as convenient and often as tasty as they are, processed meats need to be used very sparingly. Many populations in poorer countries use any kind of meat sparingly, and up to a point, the less they use, the more health they are. I’ve written quite a bit about processed meats in the past, and have lamented personally about turning away from one of my favorites, bacon. But the research evidence keeps getting more overwhelming. A few weeks ago a new European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study was published; it included more than a half million people. The researchers found that the more processed meats people ate, the greater the risk of early death. As Dr. Rachel Thompson, from the World Cancer Research Fund said: “This research adds to the body of scientific evidence highlighting the health risks of eating processed meat.” This new research confirms findings from 2007 and 2011; “which shows strong evidence that eating processed meat, such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami and some sausages, increases the risk of getting bowel cancer.” There were a few pieces of information in this new research that seemed especially helpful.

  • The first, and most important is that the more the people ate, the great the risk of early death. The risk of premature death can be increased by up to 44 percent.
  • The second was that the disease risk was not just for cardiovascular diseases, but in addition, it raised the risk of cancer too.
  • And third was a clarification of the definition of processed meat. The researchers did not consider ground meat used in making homemade burgers, meatballs, or other recipes to be processed meat. If the burger was preserved with salt or chemical additives, then it was considered processed.

The study doesn’t point to what it is about the processed meats that causes the increased risk. Certainly, when I think back to documentaries that I’ve seen, depicting the making of cold cuts or the more recent pictures of pink slime, my mind really fills me with a sense of repulsion. I wish I could say that by my age, my sight wouldn’t have so much power over my cognition, but I must say that I can’t think about these visuals before eating any of it. It can be pretty effective at slowing down on the processed meat, if you’re a visual person like myself. If you watched any of the videos, you will have noticed the salt, extra fat and ‘special spices’ that are added to keep the products safe.

It just stands to reason, when you grind things up into minute particles you create so much surface area, that you will have the opportunity for bacteria. So it is that all the way back thousands of years ago, mankind learned that smoking, curing, salting, adding other preservatives, and using other curing processes needed to be involved to use all the parts of slaughtered animals and to set it aside for later use. The ‘waste not, want not’ principle was important for most of humankind’s existence.

The evidence has taken centuries, and modern science to accumulate, and now it is strong: Deli meats, aka processed meats have been found to be unhealthy, but why are they so unhealthy?  Researchers guess that it may have to do with the saturated fat (the type of fat that raises blood cholesterol); the total fat (some salamis are 50 percent fat); the sodium (four slices of bacon, provides 800 milligrams of sodium – more than half a day’s worth); high cooking temperatures (forms heterocyclic amines, compounds that been linked to cancer in animals and colorectal polyps in people); and sodium nitrite (preservative used to combat botulism – forms potentially carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds). But as I mentioned above, the researchers really don’t know if there is one component that’s causing the increase in risk of premature death, several or a combination of components.

How much is safe to eat?  This study found that 20 grams a day didn’t increase the risk of early death. So go splurge on a skinny slice of bacon, or two – that’s less than an ounce.

Beware that even the ‘natural’ processed meats are loaded with sodium and saturated fat.

In a National Public Radio (NPR) piece, Sabine Rohrmann professor of epidemiology at the University of Zurich and the chief researcher of the new study was quoted as saying: “My recommendation is to limit meat intake, in particular processed meat intake.  …my recommendation is to limit the (total) amount of meat to about 300 to 600 grams a week.” Her recommendation is covering the fresh and processed meats – that is about 10.5 ounces to 1 pound 5 ounces per week. To translate her recommendation one step further, it is 3 ounces – 3 times a week for the bottom of the safe range. You can eat those 3 ounces up to 7 times a week (that includes both processed and fresh meat) if you are at the high end of the range.  But remember, these limits include the non-processed meat we eat, as well as the ounces of processed. Her recommendation echoes folk wisdom and pronouncements from the religious and wisdom literatures available for years before this research was conducted: “Eat meat sparingly.” If we follow her recommendations, we will cut out the frequent intake of big burgers for lunch and those 8-ounce steaks for dinner. It becomes pretty clear that we will be looking for some other choices for our protein sources, since many people eat animal protein at least for lunch and dinner. So what can work, while at the same time keeping risk down?

If you think the professor’s recommendations are good ones for you, you may choose to only have processed meats once in a while. At our house we no longer buy processed meats. But sometimes we have processed meat served while touring in another country or served by a friend or relative. If bacon were served, I would definitely eat a strip or two – I just love the salty, fatty, crispy stuff. That usually happens a couple times a year.

But as to approaching a new goal, there are so many possible ways to approach it. Logically, most approaches would start with where your present intake is. Design from that beginning point and cut back from there.

What are healthier choices for sandwiches? If your first step is to cut back on processed meats, you may want to consider roasting fresh beef or pork and slicing it thin. On other days, consider using turkey or chicken. But remember, the advice is to eat meat sparingly as an entire category, so do not increase fresh meats in your quest to reduce processed meats. Don’t forget the simplicity of peanut butter, eggs, tuna and salmon. You may eventually discover that hummus and any of the vast arrays of vegetables is delicious.

When I was a girl, I lived next door to an avocado orchard; our neighbor gave us all we wanted. Sometimes I took avocado sandwich to school for lunch. The other children would say; “Ewe, what’s that green stuff!” Many of them had moved to California from colder states and had not been introduced to avocados, yet. I must share that once they learned how incredible avocados were, they were eating guacamole like a main dish. I think it’s going to be the same with hummus and veggie sandwiches. On St. Patrick’s Day and our Easter party people were eating my bright green hummus like ice cream. (I shared the recipe on my March 19, 2013 blog.) Be creative! Try hummus and/or avocado and maybe add a little sliced egg; or chop the egg and mix it together, then spread on your whole grain toast. Now your taste buds are on the road to a delicious experience.

Efforts to move away from too much sugar and/or too much red meat are both quests that call upon some of the same skills. It involves being creative. If you feel a temporary drought in your creativity, or a lack of time, but you are motivated, it can still work, because there are so many creative people who are sharing recipes and menus on the Internet. Just dedicate a bit of your time and begin the journey toward decreased risk of disease and improved health. And last of all; remember that Good Health Can Be Yummy!