It comes as no shock when new studies emerge of the potential health risks associated with consuming processed meat. After all, the link between processed meat and diseases like cancer has been making headlines for years.
If you are wondering, "What is processed meat and what makes it so unhealthy?" you're not alone. After all, much of the food we normally consume is processed without posing a health risk.
A recent study by Hamilton scientists found a link between consuming processed meat and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and early death. The study did not find the same association with unprocessed red meat or poultry.
If you want to better understand what processed meat is, or want to make healthier meat choices, look no further!
Processed meat explained
While there is no formal definition of processed meat, "it generally refers to meat that has been smoked, salted, cured, or that has preservatives or other additives in it," explains Sue Heikkinen, a My Net Diary registered dietitian.
Traditionally used as a means of preserving and reducing the risk of food-borne diseases, the most common types of processed meats include hot dogs, sausage, ham, bacon, hot peppers, and deli.
While all meat is processed to some extent, these types of highly processed meat contain additives like nitrates, and high salt levels pose the greatest health risks.
Unfortunately, this also applies to lean, white meat on the counter, such as B. sliced turkey or chicken. On the flip side, you can still enjoy your favorite meat, but without the harmful ingredients, by buying organic, farm-fresh meat and better understanding what food labels mean.
Can processed meat be part of a healthy diet?
Processed meat can be a convenient and flavorful source of protein, iron, and zinc, according to Heikkinen. However, she adds, "People should not rely on these foods as an important source of nutrients given the potential downside." Says. In fact, Heikkinen recommends avoiding processed meat as much as possible. "This (recent study) showed an increased health risk with as much as 50g of processed meat per week, the equivalent of a small hot dog or two slices of ham," she advises. It's just not worth the risk, especially when there are healthier alternatives out there.
The American Institute for Cancer Research has compelling evidence that even a small amount of processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer.
For those who refuse to eat a little sausage in their eggs, Heikkinen says that a small serving from time to time isn't harmful as long as you keep it as small as possible. "To add flavor to your dish, add a bit of ham to a pea soup or a sausage to a vegetable-rich pasta sauce."
Tips for identifying tricky food labels
Identifying processed meat begins with carefully reading the labels. If you see words like nitrate, nitrite, hardened, or salted, it's sure to be processed – and a sign that you can switch to a healthier option.
On the other hand, some labels can be misleading. For example, "nitrate-free" may not be what it claims to be. “It is advisable to choose delicatessen foods without the addition of nitrates,” says Heikkinen. However, manufacturers can still add “natural” nitrate sources such as celery powder and state “no nitrates” on their labels.
"We don't yet know if these natural sources are safer options," says Heikkinen. In fact, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service is planning a change in labeling laws to prohibit such claims when plant nitrate cells are added.
A “low sodium” statement on a label can also be difficult. By definition, deli meat contains less than 140 mg of sodium in one serving. This would bring the lunch meat up to a reasonable sodium level, considering your bread and sandwich condiments have extra sodium in them.
"The 'low-sodium' claim is stronger than 'low-sodium' which just means that the food contains at least 25% less sodium than the standard version and may still be high in sodium," explains Heikkinen.
To avoid the stress that can be associated with disassembling labels, Heikkinen recommends speaking to your local butcher or farmer and letting them know the type of meat you are looking for.
Healthier alternatives to processed meat
Eating less processed meat is easier than you think, and there are plenty of practical options. For lunch alternatives, Heikkinen recommends swapping processed meat for tuna, hummus, peanut butter, and even freshly cooked meat. At dinner, consider healthy options like fresh fish, grilled chicken, hard-boiled free-range eggs, organic red meat, beans, or tofu.
For taste breakouts, similar to processed meat, try adding a variety of seasonings. If you're looking for a sausage flavor, try adding fennel and Italian seasoning to ground beef, adds Heikkinen.
Taking the time to cook fresh meat at home will help you eat as healthily as possible at a butcher or local farm, the easiest way to avoid harmful processed meat.