Have you been eating processed meat without realizing it?
When it comes to a healthy diet, you don’t need to quit carbs or fat or even sugar.
But your dietitian will suggest you limit processed meat. In fact, avoiding processed meat is best for cancer prevention.
Research shows that eating even small amounts increases your risk for colorectal cancer.
The problem is, processed meat is convenient – and it’s everywhere. But what qualifies as processed meat?
“Processed meat is any meat that has been preserved by salting or smoking,” says Debra Ruzensky, a clinical dietitian at MD Anderson. “As well as the well-known examples like hot dogs and bologna, it includes almost all deli meats used in sandwiches, bacon bits added to soups and salads, and sausage and pepperoni you find on pizzas.”
You might also find bacon used for flavoring in pasta sauces and prepared vegetable dishes.
Processed meats contain carcinogens
Processed meats have nitrates and nitrites added to preserve the meat and maintain color.
Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals naturally found in soil, water and vegetables. They aid in digestion and are found in our saliva and blood.
“Diets high in vegetables are good for health. But when nitrates and nitrites are added to processed meats and are exposed to heat, they become harmful,” says Ruzensky.
Research has shown that these chemicals can damage the colon, causing cells to mutate and tumors to form. And the meat is often cooked at a high temperature, which also creates carcinogens.
“You’re essentially introducing carcinogens right into the tissue of the lower intestine,” says Ruzensky. “Eating 50 grams of processed meat per day increases your risk for colorectal cancer by 16%. 50 grams is one hot dog, or two slices of ham.”
Watch out for meats labeled nitrate-free
Nitrate-free or uncured meats still count as processed meat because they usually contain natural nitrates like celery powder.
Food producers can mark something nitrate-free if it doesn’t contain artificial nitrates, but there’s no research to suggest that natural nitrates are better.
“It’s like glucose that comes from honey instead of sugar. Your body recognizes both as glucose when it’s digested,” says Ruzensky. “With nitrates, whether it’s natural or not, it’s still nitrates.”
Skip packaged turkey and chicken
Turkey and chicken are often recommended as healthy alternatives to red meat. But if they are preserved, they count as processed meats and are harmful.
Roasted chicken and roasted turkey in deli meat packets or at the deli counter have likely had nitrates added. Turkey bacon does, too.
“Turkey bacon is probably better from a cholesterol standpoint, but it’s still processed meat,” says Ruzensky. “I like the rotisserie chicken you buy fresh. They’ve cooked it there, it's seasoned on the outside, but it's not preserved.”
Check the use-by date and ingredients
Still confused? The best way to check if your meat is processed is to check the use-by date.
“Fresh meat is not going to last for weeks and weeks in your refrigerator like some of these processed meats can,” says Ruzensky. “Look at the packets and be wary of expiration dates that are longer than a few days.”
You can also check the ingredients.
“These meats all have ingredient labels. If you see salt as the second ingredient, or if celery powder is listed, it’s a processed meat,” says Ruzensky.
Replace processed meat with fresh meat or vegetarian alternatives
You might fear sandwiches won’t be same without processed meats like ham and sliced turkey, but there are healthy alternatives.
Bake a turkey or chicken breast and slice it at home, or try tuna salad, egg salad or chicken salad.
“You can also try different proteins like hummus or tofu,” says Ruzensky. “You can add vegetarian sausages to soups or chili, or use herbs and spices to add flavor to any dish. Vegetarian sausages do not contain nitrates or nitrites, but are still high in salt, so still eat them in moderation.”
Over time, your tastes may change so that you prefer less salty foods.
“I'm not saying never eat a hot dog ever again, but it’s important to recognize that if you eat processed meat on a regular basis, your risk for cancer increases,” says Ruzensky. “It’s important to focus on fresh whole foods whenever you can.”