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.
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
- 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?
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