It’s no shocker when new studies surface about potential health risks associated with eating processed meat. After all, the link between processed meats and diseases such as cancer has made headlines for years.
If you find yourself asking, “What is processed meat and what makes it so unhealthy?” you’re not alone. After all, a good portion of the foods we normally consume are processed, but don’t pose health risks.
A recent study led by Hamilton scientists has found a link between eating processed meat and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and early death. The study did not find the same link with unprocessed red meat or poultry.
If you’re looking to have a better understanding of what processed meat is, or wish to make healthier meat choices, look no further!
Processed Meat Explained
Although there is no formal definition of processed meat, “it generally refers to meats that have been smoked, salted, cured, or have preservatives or other additives” explains Sue Heikkinen, a registered dietician at My Net Diary.
Traditionally served as a way to preserve and reduce the risk of food-borne illness, the most common types of processed meats include hot dogs, sausage, ham, bacon, pepperoni, and deli meats.
While all meat is processed to some degree, these types of highly-processed meats contain additives like nitrates, and high levels of salt, pose the most health risks.
Unfortunately, this goes for lean, white meat at the deli counter such as sliced turkey or chicken also. On the flip side, you can still enjoy your favorite meats but without the harmful ingredients by purchasing organic, farm-fresh meats, and having a better understanding of what food labels mean.
Can Processed Meat Be a Part of a Healthy Diet?
According to Heikkinen, processed meats can be convenient and flavorful sources of protein, iron, and zinc. However, she adds, “people shouldn’t rely on these foods as a significant source of nutrients, given the potential downsides.” Says . In fact, Heikkinen recommends people avoid processed meats as much as possible. “This [recent study] showed an increased health risk with even 50g (about 2 ounces) of processed meat a week, the equivalent of a small hot dog or two slices of ham,” she advises. It’s simply not worth the risk, especially when there are healthier alternatives available.
The American Institute for Cancer Research states there is convincing evidence that even a small amount of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
For those who refuse to part with a little flavor of sausage to their eggs, Heikkinen says a small portion from time to time won’t be detrimental, as long as you keep it as small as possible. “To add flavor to your dish, add a bit of ham in a split pea soup or sausage in a vegetable-rich pasta sauce.”
Tips to Identify Tricky Food Labeling
Identifying processed meat starts with reading labels carefully. If you see words like nitrate, nitrite, cured, or salted, it’s most certainly processed — and a sign for you to skip 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 wise to choose deli meats with no added nitrates,” says Heikkinen. However, manufacturers can still add “natural” nitrate sources such as celery powder, and claim “no nitrates” on their labels.
“We don’t yet know if these natural sources are safer options,” says Heikkinen. In fact, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service plans a change in labeling laws to prohibit such claims when plant sources of nitrates are added.
A “low-sodium” claim on a label can be tricky as well. By definition, deli meat has under 140mg of sodium in a serving. This would bring the lunch meat to a reasonable sodium level, considering there will be additional sodium from your bread and sandwich condiments.
“The low-sodium” claim is more powerful than “reduced-sodium,” which only means the food has at least 25% less sodium than the standard version, and could still be rather high in sodium” explains Heikkinen.
To avoid the stress that may come with dissecting labels, Heikkinen suggests talking with your local butcher or farmer and let them know the type of meat you are looking for.
Healthier Alternatives to Processed Meats
Eating less-processed meat is easier than you think, and there are many convenient options available. For lunch meat alternatives, Heikkinen suggests swapping processed meat for tuna, hummus, peanut butter, even leftover fresh-cooked meat. For dinners, consider healthy options such as fresh fish, grilled chicken, free-range hard-boiled eggs, organic red meat, beans, or tofu.
For bursts of flavor, similar to what processed meats come with, try adding in a wide variety of spices. If you’re looking for a sausage flavor, try adding fennel and Italian seasoning to ground meat, Heikkinen adds.
Taking the time to cook fresh meat at home, buying from a butcher or local farm is a great way to ensure you are eating as healthy as possible, and the easiest way to avoid harmful processed meats.