Why You Need To Avoid Processed Meats

CoachMel Healthy Eating 29 Comments

Do you ever stop to consider exactly how the foods you eat most are produced?

Something I’ve been considering recently are the curing and smoking processes for meats.

If you indulge regularly in processed beef and pork, or smoked fish, you may be thinking it’s no big deal. However, eating these foods can certainly have consequences on your future health.

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I always say read food labels (I don’t always take my own advice, either!!). But, if we don’t make time to do that, and actually understand what the ingredients are/do, then we won’t have any idea what we are eating.

I’ve said it before, but minimizing the amount of processed foods you eat is really important, if health is your top priority.

It’s not just the high salt content that makes processed meats bad for you. There are other ingredients to consider, too, like nitrites, nitrates, and the animal parts used.

Cancer A Major Concern

You may already know about the Food, Nutrition And The Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective report, which discussed some of the factors responsible for modifying our cancer risk.

One take away from this report was that foods preserved with salt, and processed foods ought to be limited. They stated:

Some methods of food preservation, processing, and preparation affect the risk of cancer. The strongest evidence concerns processed meats, preserved by salting, smoking, pickling, addition of chemicals, and other methods; salt from all sources; and salt-preserved foods. Salt and salt-preserved foods are probably a cause of stomach cancer.

In addition to this, when the World Cancer Research Fund reviewed more than 7,000 clinical studies, looking at the connection between diet and cancer, they concluded no one should eat processed meats, stating there is strong evidence that processed meats are the cause of bowel cancer.

And, it’s pretty clear-cut when they say, no amount of processed meat can be confidently shown not to increase cancer risk.

Minimize Your Cancer Risk By Educating Yourself

To reduce your intake of these unhealthy foods, it is important to understand a little more about which meats are considered “processed,” so that you know what to avoid.

It is actually possible to categorize processed meat products into six broad groups.

1. Fresh Processed Meats

These products are meat mixes, which are salted only. Certain ingredients are added to enhance the flavor, for binding purposes, and to add volume. These are raw foods, which are then cooked at home.

Examples include some sausages and burgers.

2. Cured Meats

Cured meats can either be raw or cooked. While the curing for both is similar (nitrite is added either as dry salt, or as salt solution in water), the difference is that cured-raw meats are not heat treated. They undergo a processed of curing, fermentation and ripening, and are then eaten uncooked.

With cured-cooked meats, the raw meat is cured, then it is heat treated.

Examples of cured meats include cooked ham, raw fermented ham, and bacon.

3. Raw-Cooked Meats

These products are made up of meat, fat and non-meat ingredients. They are heat treated, and this is why they are referred to as “cooked.”

Products in this group include frankfurters, hotdogs, buffalo sausage, and white sausage.

4. Precooked-Cooked Meats

Precooked-cooked meats contain a mix of lower-grade meats, fat, and basically anything considered an “edible slaughter” by-product (that means head, feet, skin, blood, and liver).

There are two heat treatment procedures involved in the manufacture of precooked-cooked products. The raw materials are precooked prior to grinding and chopping, and then the finished product is heat treated again.

Examples include blood sausage, pate, and corned beef.

5. Raw-Fermented Sausages

Raw-fermented sausages are uncooked, and are made up of less coarse mixtures of lean meats and fat, combined with salt, nitrite, sugar, spices and other non-meat ingredients. Their color, flavor and texture is due to the fermentation processes. They are not heat treated, and are eaten raw.

Examples include sausages like chorizo or salami.

6. Dried Meats

Dried meat products are lean meats, which have been dehydrated or dried in a natural or artificially created environment. This is basically meat with its natural tissue fluid evaporated.

Some examples of dried meats include biltong or meat floss.

Please see the linked article on processed meats for more information.

Understanding what foods are categorized as processed meats, and the consequences on your long-term health, will help you to make a more informed decision about whether you want to include these foods in your diet on a regular basis.

Why Smoked Meats Are Unhealthy

Meats, fish and cheeses are smoked for flavoring, cooking, or preserving. This is done by exposing them to smoke from burning or smoldering plant materials, most often wood.

Modern day smoking processes are very different to the traditional smoking process. One main difference is that artificial smoke is often used, which is a lot more harmful than real smoke.

High levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in meat cooked at high temperatures, such as grilling or barbecuing, and in smoked fish. These are thought to play a role in the development of pancreatic, colorectal and prostate cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Why Nitrates And Nitrites Are Unhealthy

Meats and fish are cured for preservation and flavoring. This is done by a combination of salt, nitrates, nitrite, or sugar. But, many curing processes also involve smoking. The nitrates and nitrites are very worrying, because they have also been linked to cancer in both lab animals and humans.

Nitrates and nitrites actually occur naturally in food and water, and they are involved in many important chemical reactions within the body. The problem is they can react with other compounds, either in a food or in body, and this is when they become cancer-causing.

3 Ways To Make Your Diet Healthier

1. Avoid Nitrites and Nitrates

As I’ve already said, if you put your health first, it is wise to avoid processed meats most of the time. But, when you do eat them, go for “uncured” varieties, which contain no sodium nitrite.

Sodium nitrite appears predominantly in red meat products. Here are some of the foods you should check carefully:

  • Beef jerky
  • Bacon
  • Sausage
  • Hot dogs
  • Sandwich meat like ham
  • Frozen pizza with meat
  • Canned soups with meat
  • Frozen meals with meat

Healthier options include sliced turkey, roast beef, and chicken.

Check food labels for products containing 100% beef, 100% chicken, etc. This way you will know the meat is from a single species, and doesn’t include ingredients like skin or fat.

Ideally, when purchasing meat, do so from a local farmer or butcher, where you can ask about the ingredients.

2. Limit Smoked Foods

It is also wise to limit your intake of smoked foods, most of the time.

In addition to having less omega-3 fats than non-smoked fish, most smoked fish contains PAHs, which are harmful.

3. Eat Lots Of Fruits And Vegetables

Antioxidants, particularly vitamin C and E, inhibit the conversion of sodium nitrate into nitrosamines. Studies have actually found those who eat lots of cured meat, but have a high intake of vitamin C, do not have increased rates of cancer.

So, if you are eating processed meat, make sure you are eating it with a big portion of vegetables alongside.

Do you eat processed meats regularly? Does this article change your opinion on them?

Note: If you enjoyed this article, sharing it (on Facebook, etc) is a great way to say ‘thank you’.

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Comments 29

  1. karantan

    “Melanie is a Registered Dietitian ” when i read this i was like “ahaaaaaaaa she is one of those registered things…”
    i read the whole article and at the end i was thinking what kind of meat should i actually eat… cuz everything i eat you say its not healthy. almost every1 i know eats this things. so tell me if its such a problem why are we still so healthy?
    the problem with dietitian is that they are all extremists. you wont find 1 that will tell you its ok to eat pork or beef. (i will sooooo loled if i get reply of some1 saying that i really should eat it :D)

    1. Melanie

      The purpose of this article is to make people aware of what is in the foods they are eating. It’s up to you what you do with that info.

      I am not saying don’t eat ham ever. I’m saying try to avoid eating too much, and in particular products containing Nitrites and Nitrates. You can get nitrate free versions.

      I can’t say if the foods you and your friends eat will or won’t effect your health long-term, I’m simply making a recommendation based on the science right now. I speak according to the study results, not my own theories, trying to advise people how they can best improve their health.

      Also, I didn’t simply say what not to eat, I do make some recommendations, for example that healthier options include sliced turkey, roast beef, and chicken. It’s absolutely fine to eat beef, I don’t know what beef you are referring to that “dietitians” won’t tell you to eat.

      1. Grim

        Ok Fruits And Vegetables have pesticide, all processed meats gives you stomach cancer,sea foods has mercuric chloride in it, chicken and beef is full of steroids we might as well drop dead right now because all we can eat is hole grane that is processed in a factory.

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  3. Drg68

    I’ve been reading up on this a lot lately and what you state about “uncured” meat is incorrect. It still has sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite from the celery mixture that is used to cure the meat so you won’t get botulism poisoning. However, the conversion of sodium nitrate to sodium nitrite isn’t always complete, so this “uncured” product may not be as safe as the normal version. Veggies are apparently also responsible for the lion’s share of a normal person’s intake of these compounds too.

    So it appears that these “uncured” products are just a less safe way of liberating more money from people’s wallets. 🙁

  4. Cynthia James

    Hi, my name is Cynthia, and I enjoyed reading your article on eating healthier. It’s hard for me to lose weight and I’m not sure why, since I don’t really eat that much, then it dawned on me that just maybe I’m eating the wrong foods when I do eat. So, I’ve tried eating sliced turkey, roast beef, chicken, lots of fruits and vegetables and I lost 7lbs in one week. I would like to thank you again for your article. Most individuals aren’t sure what to eat and what not to eat. And some just don’t care what they eat, so as long as they’re eating. I can only speak for myself and I tried what your article read…….thank you, thank you and thank you again!

  5. Bryon

    I like to go out for smoking with friends, never though that the food smoked is unhealthy, I really need to consider the times we go out for smoking. Thanks for your useful information.

  6. scott

    Can you please comment further when you say smoked foods are bad. Are you talking about cooking with a wood fired smoker to cook your food or are you referring to the smoking process to preserve food such as smoked fish done in a smoker for several hours versus 20 minutes in a home wood fired smoker just creating the heat to cook in 20 minutes. I hope I described this clearly.

  7. Jay


    I am have read previously that smoked meat and vegetables is good for you. Could you elaborate on your why this is unhealthy?

    Thanks 🙂

  8. Leigh

    I dont have any idea how dangerous the processed meats are. they are delicious but I need to less consume them. Well-informed. Better take care my self soon.

  9. Food smoking love

    There are a lot of risks in eating spicy, smoked or processed food every day. though, if the food is smoked using the safety tips and bbq sauces and is not eaten frequently it may not harm. A good article!

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