Processed Meats : Why All The Fuss?

Afternoon all, so you might have noticed the headlines stating ‘processed meats are bad for your health and can lead to cancer and premature death’! Concerning news indeed, yet not all that surprising…so isn't it time we took action!?

Why should we listen to this particular study?

This study has found a possible link between eating processed meat such as bacon, salami, ham and sausages to pancreatic cancer and early death. The researchers state that just 50g on top of the maximum recommended intake of 70g of processed meat a day (approx 2 rashers of bacon) had a 44% greater risk of dying over 12 years compared to those eating just 20g! Shocking facts, but what makes this study any more pertinent than the one written by Joe Bloggs and his mates back in 1990, or even one from just a few months ago for that matter? The difference with these new findings is that it doesn’t consider one study in isolation which would be riddled with limitations. This one actually considers Joe Bloggs’ findings from 1990 as well as 10 other studies performed by reputable researchers in order to find a significant consensus of opinion. The study inspiring the news headlines at the moment comes from what is known in research as a systematic review and meta-analysis, meaning it considers the findings from more than 2 million people which make it representative of the population. Of course with any study there are limitations to be factored, but studies of this nature generally come with some clout, so take note!

Know your enemy!

OK, maybe making processed meat (provided you’re not a vegetarian) an enemy per se is a little extreme and somewhat unrealistic; I for one can’t imagine my life without the occasional bit of bacon on a Sunday morning…but understanding is key to managing, so let’s get our teeth into what processed meat actually is.

Definitions

Processing - Food processing is defined as ‘a deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. Processing can include anything from freezing, drying and the addition of vitamins and minerals, or even antimicrobial preservatives and irradiation.

Preservatives – Used in foods as antioxidants and to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. Generally pose no toxic threat, but some have raised a few eye brows.

Meat product - Processed products of meat or from the further processing of such processed products which once cut shows that the product no longer resembles/has the characteristics of fresh meat.

Minced meat - Boned meat that has been minced into fragments and contains less than 1% salt.

Mechanically Separated Meat - MSM refers to meat that has been mechanically separated from the bone or from poultry carcasses resulting in loss/modification of muscle fibre structure.

Meat preparations – Fresh meat or fragmented meat which has seasoning, additives or other food stuffs added to it, and yet maintains the original characteristics of fresh meat (muscle fibre etc).

(Food Standards Agency, 2010)

If salt is bad, why add it?

If we know that salt (sodium chloride) can increase the risk of developing chronic conditions such as heart disease and hypertension, then why on earth do manufacturers still add it to our foods!? Well the answer is three fold, taste, colour and preservation of goods.

For centuries salt and spices have been used as a preservative for long voyages on ships, and incredibly this technique is still used today.

Sodium nitrate

Highly effective at preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum as well as preserving the appealing red colour of meat. It’s this preservative that is partly responsible for the increased risk of cancer demonstrated in today’s headline grabbing study. The problem is that nitrites react with secondary amines in foods producing N-nitroso derivatives, and it’s these that are thought to be carcinogenic (cancer promoting).

NOTE: Nitrites are also found in slightly lesser quantities in vegetables after bacterial reduction of nitrates, so the problem isn’t Nitrites per se but rather the quantity we consume!

Sulphites

Sulphur dioxide and the salts it contains (sulphites) are used as antimicrobials and antioxidants in meats, with Mann & Truswell (2007) explaining that although these have no adverse affects on general consumers, 1-2% of asthmatics are highly sensitive to sulphites and could suffer severe reactions which in extreme instances include death!

Dimethylnitrosamine

This is a carcinogen which becomes damaging when 100g of bacon is cooked. The index of possible hazard (HERP, %) is quite low, but when compounded by smoking, drinking, low activity and being overweight, the risks significantly increase.         

The NSW Food Authority explains that preservatives are used in processed meats for food safety, shelf life and food development. Many processed foods are completely healthful, in fact, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation many forms of processing (such as vitamin and mineral fortification) actually increase the nutritional value of food. Many of these processing methods are necessary and important to food safety and health and are generally not harmful to health if consumed within reasonable limits e.g. no more than 70g of processed meat a day.

So if you have a bacon sandwich in the morning or a ham sandwich at work today, that should probably be your lot for the day i.e. don’t then go home and have a sausage or salami dinner too…we can all enjoy processed meat from time to time, just remember it is the load we consume per week that matters most.

References

BBC News Health, (2013). Processed meat ‘early death’ link. Retrieved 07th March, 2013, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21682779

Food Standards Agency, (2010). UKmeat.org. Information, support and advice for the UK meat industries. Retrieved 07th March, 2013, from http://www.ukmeat.org/ProcessedMeats.htm

International Food Information Council Foundation, (2010). Food Insight. Retrieved 07th March, 2013, from http://www.foodinsight.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=6aMsmHu8Y%2fc%3d&tabid=1398

NSW Food Authority, (2009). Preservative use in processed meats. Licensee guidance. Retrieved 07th March, 2013, from http://www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au/_Documents/industry_pdf/preservative_use_in_processed_meats.pdf

About the Author

Job Role Qualified Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Qualifications BSc (Hons) Sports Science | BSc (Hons) Dietetics Tom has always participated in sport both recreationally and competitively which led to an unquenchable thirst for information on anything health, nutrition and fitness. After leaving school Tom went on to play for a football academy during which time he studied Sport and Exercise Science. From here he went on to study a BSc (Hons) Sport Science at UEA followed by his second BSc (Hons) degree, this time at the University of Hertfordshire studying Dietetics. Tom has worked in the fitness, educational and clinical nutrition industry starting out at David Lloyd Health and Leisure Clubs. He then went on to work as a Dietitian (RD) in the NHS, during which time he conducted clinics for healthy eating, weight loss and weight gain, as well as specialised consultations on Diabetes, IBS and Coeliac disease to name a few. He has vast amounts of experience at devising diet plans and supplement regimens, as well as working in the community with schools and competitive athletes. As Head Nutritionist and Supplement expert at Discount Supplements Tom is here to provide current and evidence based health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals!
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