Processed meat has become a clear focus when it comes to cancer prevention and diet, particularly when it comes to colorectal cancer, which is now on the rise among young adults.
The World Health Organization lists processed meat as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer. This guidance came after a group of scientists reviewed over 800 studies, the majority of which related to colorectal cancer. Experts concluding that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. This is equal to one sausage or two slices of bacon. Links were also found between processed meat and stomach cancer.
The statement that processed meat causes cancer seems stark, but in reality the evidence for meat and cancer risk has been building, with the American Cancer Society recommending that we limit red and processed meats since 2002!
What counts as processed meat?
Processed meat is meat that has been processed to enhance its flavor or to increase its shelf life. This processing includes curing, salting, fermenting, or smoking. Examples include sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, turkey bacon, and salami as well as canned meat and meat-based sauces.
How does processed meat cause cancer?
Processed meats are thought to cause cancer in a number of ways. Processed meats have additives such as sodium nitrite added during processing, which helps to improve the color and shelf life of the meat. This nitrite can turn into cancer-causing nitrosamines when meat is cooked at high temperatures, such as when meats are grilled or fried. Another potentially cancer-causing group of compounds, Hetrocyclic Amines (HCAs), are also formed when meats are cooked at high temperatures, which may increase the risk further.
Smoked meats are thought to increase cancer risk as they are high in Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are formed when organic substances such as wood or meat burn. PAHs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, and may contribute to the increase cancer risk seen in human studies.
Processed meats are also high in sodium, which has been linked to increased risk of stomach cancer.
What about ‘Natural’ processed meats?
To avoid adding traditional nitrates and nitrites, some companies have turned to more natural ingredients such as beetroot or celery extract to preserve their products. These natural ingredients still contain nitrates, however, and so they can still form the nitrosamines which are thought to cause cancer. Similarly, products which claim to be ‘naturally’ smoked are still going to contain the cancer-causing compounds created by any type of smoking, hence the cancer risk is still the same.
There has also been increased interest in products such as turkey bacon, which consumers chose believing it to be a lower fat ‘healthy’ alternative to regular bacon. We can now see that in terms of cancer risk, turkey bacon would still cause issues given its processing.
So I have to give up processed meat forever?
We need perspective with this guidance. It does not mean that everyone who eats processed meat will get colorectal cancer. It also does not mean that eliminating these meats will eliminate your risk of colorectal cancer. As with many components of nutrition science, ‘the dose makes the poison’- it’s about the total amount consumed over a long period of time rather than the once-off indulgences.
The American Institute of Cancer Research was unable to find a safe limit for processed meats, so the advice has been to avoid it completely. However, a more sustainable method is to reduce the amount you are eating. Eating ham three times per year is not going to have a huge impact on your risk of developing cancer, but eating ham every day for lunch will.
At Cook For Your LIFE, we believe there are far more exciting lunchtime options which are both healthy and tasty. For die-hard sandwich lovers, our tempeh avocado sandwich is hard to beat. Instead of having hot dogs at your barbecue, try our BBQ pulled carrot sandwich. Our black bean chili is also a perfect substitute, having a delicious smokey flavor thanks to the addition of chipotle pepper in adobo. With these recipes, you’ll cut your cancer risk and enjoy more flavorful meals in one swoop…it’s a win win!