Studies on the risks of consuming processed meats have grown more prevalent in recent years. Processed meats are linked to bowel cancer, higher chances of heart disease, and general ill-health. For anyone considering a new diet, reducing your processed meat consumption could be an important step towards longevity and better health.
Though the number of studies into the dangers of processed meats is higher today than it once was, the food has consistently been linked with poor health throughout history.
Society’s willingness to ignore the possible outcomes of processed food consumption has even prompted scientists to find parallels between unhealthy habits such as smoking, and poor nutrition. According to experts, this link suggests people more likely to consume processed meats are also more likely to ignore other healthy living advice.
For some people, however, the issue may be a lack of knowledge. If you’re not sure what the risks associated with processed meats are, you may not feel avoidance is necessary.
Educating yourself on the risks of consuming processed meats is therefore the first step.
Which Kinds of Meat are the Most Processed?
Processed meat is any meat preserved through man-made methods like curing, salting, smoking, drying, or canning. Often, chemical substances are added to these foods which can have a negative effect on our health. It’s also worth noting that many processed meats are forms of red meat, which already have a higher connection with health issues.
Even a small amount of processed meat, when eaten regularly, can have a significant impact on your health. A 50g higher intake of processed meats like sausages and bacon each day increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 18% in one study.
Some of the most processed forms of meat include:
- Ham and cured bacon
- Sausages, hot dogs, and salami
- Salted and cured meats (corned beef and pastrami)
- Dried meat and beef jerky
- Canned meat
- Smoked meat
Interestingly, vegan meat is often processed as well. Much of the “fake” meat in plant-based burgers and similar foods go through heavy processing processes to both preserve the produce inside and deliver a unique flavour. Vegan burgers and bacon often contain extremely high levels of salt.
Why is Processed Meat Dangerous?
Applying additional chemicals and salt to meat can make it last longer, but it can also lead to a range of dangerous side effects, including an increased risk of various chronic diseases, such as:
- High blood pressure: Usually as a result of excess sodium.
- Heart disease: Particularly prominent in processed red meats.
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease): Linked to cured and smoked meats.
Perhaps the biggest threat associated with the consumption of processed meat is a higher risk of bowel, stomach, and colon cancers. A number of studies into both humans and animals have demonstrated consistently that higher processed meat consumption increases cancer likelihood.
Though studies on processed meat consumption are mostly observational in nature, they demonstrate clear links between highly processed foods and serious diseases. These reports demonstrate people who eat processed meat are more likely to get these diseases, but they can’t prove which specific meat or what particular kind of consumption caused the condition.
If your genetics already indicate you have a higher than usual risk of certain diseases, cancers, or chronic conditions, your doctor may advise being particularly cautious about your exposure to processed foods. A CircleDNA test will show you your potential risk level for certain conditions and offer advice on which foods you should prioritize (or avoid).
What are the Dangerous Substances in Processed Meats?
Due to the observational nature of the research into processed meats, it’s difficult to say for certain which compounds and additives are the most dangerous. Currently, we know some of the following ingredients are often problematic.
Nitrite and N-Nitroso compounds
Nitrite and N-Nitroso compounds are cancer-causing substances that researchers believe to be responsible for some of the adverse effects of consuming processed meat. These substances are formed from the sodium nitrite added to food products to:
- Preserve the color of meat
- Improve the flavor by suppressing fat oxidation
- Inhibit the growth of bacteria and reduce the risk of food poisoning
Nitrite and similar compounds, like Nitrate, are also found in other foods. Nitrate in vegetables, for instance, can sometimes be beneficial to our health. However, Nitrite in processed meat is different, as it can mutate into N-Nitroso compounds, such as Nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines are formed when processed meat products are exposed to high heats (such as when grilling or frying bacon). Observational studies in humans indicate that nitrosamines may play a role in increasing the risk of stomach, bowel, and colon cancer. Watch out for these substances in:
- Canned meats
- Cured meats
- Dried meats
HCAs (Heterocyclic Amines)
Heterocyclic Amines, or HCAs form when fish and meat are cooked at high temperatures. Though not exclusive to processed meats, HCAs are often found in high doses in burgers, bacon, and sausages. When consumed in high amounts, HCAs can cause cancer, among other serious ailments.
Numerous observational studies have also found well-done meats (cooked at a higher temperature) may increase the risk of cancer in the colon, prostate, and breast. The level of HCAs in all kinds of foods and meats could be minimized with the use of gentler cooking methods, like steaming.
Be cautious about HCAs in:
- Charred and blackened meats
- Burgers, bacon, and sausages
PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons)
Smoking meat is one of the most common (and traditional) methods of preserving it. Often, smoking is used alongside salting or drying to make foods last longer, such as jerky. Unfortunately, this process can lead to the formation of harmful substances, like PAHs.
PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons accumulate on the surface of smoked meat products and often occur in situations where people are burning wood or charring meat. Experts believe PAHs contribute to various health issues, including an increased risk of cancer.
Watch for PAHs in:
- Jerky and dried meats
- Smoked sausages and bacon
- Meats with an added “smoke” flavor
Similar to smoking, salting is one of the most traditional methods human beings use for food preservation. Salt can improve taste, but it also helps to reduce the growth of bacteria. Processed food is significantly higher in salt than most other natural foods.
Crucially, some vegan versions of foods such as vegan burgers and bacon are higher in salt than their non-vegan counterparts. It’s particularly important to be cautious about your consumption of salt with a vegan diet. It’s also crucial to be aware of your salt consumption if you’re sensitive to sodium, or have a condition called salt-sensitive hypertension.
A higher salt diet can increase your risk of stomach cancer, but it also contributes to issues like high levels of Helicobacter Pylori, a bacterium responsible for stomach ulcers.
How to Identify Processed Meats
While a small amount of processed meat in your diet may not be life-threatening, most dietary experts will recommend avoiding this food whenever possible. Processed meats and processed vegan meats can increase your risk of various types of cancer. What’s more, the additives and substances used in the preservation processes can irritate your stomach and cause discomfort.
While there’s no way to completely eliminate your risk of cancer, the American Institute of Cancer Research advises us all to be more cautious about meat consumption. Processed meats are actually considered “carcinogens” today.
The best ways to avoid processed meat is to:
- Read the label: Check the ingredients list on any food you think might be processed. Even if meats are labelled “uncured” or “natural”, look for things like nitrite, nitrate, and “salted”, in the description. These words indicate processing.
- Skip nitrite free foods: While nitrite-free meats might have less nitrites and nitrates, they’re generally not nitrite free. Your stomach will usually turn some nitrates into nitrites, which form cancer-forming substances.
- Eat a plant-based diet: A plant-based diet is naturally healthier and less likely to contain many of the ingredients which make processed meats bad for you. However, be cautious when eating plant-based meat substitutes, as they can be just as problematic as their meat alternatives.
- Reduce portion sizes: If you’re struggling to remove processed meats from your diet entirely, reducing your portion sizes is a good start. You can consider having a few “meat free” days in your week, or scheduling weeks in the month when you avoid all processed foods and meat-based substances.
Keeping a log of the foods you eat will help you to be more mindful about your dietary choices. You’ll also be able to use your diary to determine which processed meats you have the most negative responses to.
Being Cautious with Processed Meats
Choosing the best diet for your needs will be a personal process. Looking at your genetic health risks, your current dietary issues and any health problems you’re tackling on a deeper level should help to guide your eating habits. For the most part, however, the majority of people will benefit from eating fewer processed meats.
The next time you consider eating bacon with your eggs, ask yourself how you could switch to a healthier alternative, such as whole-wheat bread, or avocado and eggs
If you want to find out the optimal diet type for you based on your DNA, get your genetic diet and nutrition profile from CircleDNA.