Processed meat is considered any meat that has been modified to improve the flavor and to extend its shelf life. Meat processing methods include fermentation, curing, salting, the addition of chemical preservatives, and smoking. Usually, processed meat is composed of beef or pork but it can be made of poultry too. Although it also contains viscera or meat by-products such as blood.
Generally, processed meat is bad for you. It is considered unhealthy and a major cause of heart disease and cancer. The harmful chemicals present in processed meat are the cause of cancer and other harmful diseases. In an article published in the journal The Lancet, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) deemed processed meat to be “carcinogenic to humans” based on sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer.
What Is Processed Meat?
Processed meat includes products such as hot dogs, meat-based sauces, canned meat, jerky, corned beef, salami, sausages, ham, and bacon. Meat processing includes all processes that modify the fresh meat except simple mechanical processes such as mixing, grinding, and cutting.
Meat processing began as soon as people realized that salting and cooking can extend the life of fresh meat. It is not known when this happened, however, the process of sun-drying and salting has been recorded in ancient Egypt. The use of snow and ice, on the other hand, is known since early Romans and canning of the meat was introduced by Nicolas Appert. In 1810, he received a prize from the French government for his invention.
Processed Meat And Unhealthy Food Consumption
Processed meat has always been associated with adverse health effects. Also, it is a fact that health-conscious people have known the effects of processed meat for decades. The consumption of large amounts of processed meat is more common along with an unhealthy lifestyle. For example, people who eat a lot of processed meat are more addicted to smoking. As a result, they consume fewer vegetables and fruits than people who are health conscious.
The links found between processed meat and disease may be due in part to the fact that people who eat processed meat tend to do other things that are not linked with good health. The observational studies of processed meat and health outcomes attempt to correct these factors. However, many studies have found a strong link between the consumption of processed meat and various chronic diseases.
Why Is Processed Meat Unhealthy or Cancerous?
Processed meat is linked to chronic diseases and with more consumption, you increase the risk of many chronic diseases such as:
- High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
- Heart Disease
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Stomach And Bowel Cancer
The consumption of processed meat in humans is observational in nature. The studies have shown that people eating processed meat are more likely to get the above-mentioned disease but still processed meat has not been proven the cause behind these diseases.
One thing is clear that processed meat contains harmful chemical compounds that increase the risk of chronic disease.
Nitrite, N-Nitroso Compounds, and Nitrosamines
N-nitroso compounds are carcinogens believed to be responsible for some of the adverse effects of eating processed meat. They are formed from sodium nitrate which is added to processed meat products. It is used as an additive for 3 reasons:
- To preserve the red or pink color of the meat.
- To improve the flavor by suppressing rancidification or fat oxidation.
- Prevents the growth of bacteria.
- To reduce the risk of food poisoning.
Nitrite and related compounds such as nitrate are found in other foods too. For example, nitrate is found in different types of vegetables at relatively high levels which may be beneficial to health. However, all nitrates are not the same. Nitrite in processed meat can be converted into harmful N-Nitroso compounds.
Nitrosamines are formed when the processed meats are exposed to high heat such as temperatures above 266°F or 130°C. Such temperature is usually attained when you are cooking hot dogs or frying any other processed meat. Observational studies have indicated nitrosamines as the compound increasing the risk of bowel and stomach cancer.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Smoking meat is one of the oldest methods of preservation. It is often used in combination with drying or salting. It leads to the formation of potentially harmful substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). When an organic matter is burned, PAHs are formed that are a large class of substances.
They are carried through the air with smoke and they accumulate on the surface of the grilled meat, smoked meat, or other products. Also, they are accumulated on the roasted and broiled processed meat over an open flame.
PAHs are formed from:
- Burnt or charred meat.
- Dripping fat burning on a hot surface.
- Burning coal or wood.
PAHs are thought to contribute to the adverse health effects of processed meat. In some animal studies, they have proven to cause cancer.
Heterocyclic Amines (HCA)
Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) are a class of chemical compounds forming when the fish or meat are cooked at high temperatures such as when they are grilled or fried. They are not limited to processed meat only but significant amounts can be found in beef patties, fried bacon, and hot dogs.
When given to animals in large amounts, HCAs cause cancer. These amounts are much higher than those found normally in the human diet. However, observational studies in humans have indicated that eating well-cooked meat can increase the risk of prostate, breast, and colon cancer.
The HCA level can be minimized by using methods of gentle cooking such as steaming or slow frying. Also, try to avoid blackened or charred meat.
Sodium Chloride or Salt
Processed meat products are often high in sodium chloride. For thousands of years, salt has been added to foods as a preservative. However, it is usually used to enhance the flavor. Although processed meat is far from the only food high in salt, it can contribute to the salt intake of many people.
Excessive salt intake plays an important role in heart disease and high blood pressure, especially in people with a condition known as salt-sensitive hypertension. Additionally, several studies have indicated that high-salt diets can increase the risk of stomach cancer.
Several studies have indicated that a high-salt diet can increase the growth of Helicobacter Pylori, a bacterium that causes stomach ulcers. Also, it promotes stomach cancer. You can add a little salt to the whole foods to get the amazing health benefits of a low sodium diet.
Tips for Avoiding Processed Meat
If processed meat products are already a part of your diet, take steps to eliminate or even reduce the consumption of processed meat:
- Read the label. Check the ingredients list such as salted, cured, nitrate and nitrate. If these words are on the packaging, you should be avoiding such processed meat.
- Can a healthy diet prevent cancer? Be an informed buyer. Even if the packaging says the uncured label, it might contain nitrites or nitrates that cause cancer.
- Avoid nitrate-free meats. These meats may contain fewer nitrites and nitrates but in reality, they are not nitrate-free. When you eat processed meats with a label of nitrate-free, your stomach converts some of the nitrates to nitrites. Hence, some nitrites in the body can form carcinogens.
- Reduce the consumption of processed meats or try to eat less.
- Try to go for a plant-based diet more often without eating processed meat for a few days.
Eating less processed meat is easier than you think, try some healthy swapping tips to avoid processed meat:
- Add shredded tuna, tofu, beans, hard-boiled eggs, grilled chicken to the salad instead of cubed deli meats.
- Order a fish sandwich or grilled chicken instead of a deli sandwich.
- Instead of adding hot dogs or beef, add vegetables to the tortilla.
Processed Meat – Hot Dogs or Beef Patties Are Unhealthy
Processed meat contains several chemical compounds that are usually not present in fresh meat. Most of these compounds are harmful to health. Eating lots of processed meat products for a longer period can increase the risk of chronic diseases, especially cancer. However, eating it once a while is fine but making processed meats a part of your daily diet can be risky or harmful. Ultimately, you need to limit the intake of processed meats and depend more on whole and fresh vegetables, fruits, or meats.
If you are still unable to avoid processed meat, then you can have smart food resolutions or a food diary to keep yourself aware of the intake. Instead, you can incorporate healthy substitutes such as veggies and hummus that can easily replace processed meat products. Once you are aware of your eating habits, it will be easier for you to start making healthier food choices. As a result, you will be reducing the consumption of processed meat and harmful compounds through it. Hence, eliminating processed meat products from your diet after some time.