A panel of 22 experts met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC; the cancer agency of the World Health Organization) to evaluate the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. This panel considered more than 800 studies from the past 20 years that looked at the associations between more than a dozen types of cancer and eating meat when coming up with their report, published in The Lancet Oncology.
The assessments of their findings has brought alarm to many meat eaters since this past Monday. All of a sudden, information that has long been touted by organizations like the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), is causing everyone to reconsider their meat intake from the extreme bacon-everyday-for-breakfast eater to the attempting-to-be-health-conscious-consumer who eats Subway everyday for lunch.
Take heart, as my daughter would eat hot dogs for every meal if I let her. My husband is a born and raised Texan who literally has a BBQ-joints-we-must-try bucket list. Being pregnant, I myself am under a general warning to not eat processed meat (more re: concerns of listeria). As the nutritional gatekeeper in my home, I am also well-aware of all the "all-natural alternatives" that are being marketed to tempt me to keep our meat intake up.
As a mom, wife, and average American, I understand the confusion and conflict around meat consumption, specifically processed meat. Having worked at MD Anderson Cancer Center prior to my daughter being born however, I am clear on what the leaders in cancer care are continuing to encourage: to limit our meat intake. And yet, there is a lot of information available on the topic that has recently made the headlines. It can seem overwhelming at first.
Here are a few FAQs re: processed meat to help you become better informed.
Q: What is considered processed meat?
A: The term processed meat refers to meats preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives. Examples include: bacon, sausage, chorizo, hot dogs, pepperoni, deli meats, ham, salami, and corned beef.
Q: With the general population, what is the recommendation for how much processed meat is safe to eat?
A: According to the press release from the IACR (full report has not yet been released), eating approximately 50 grams (or 1.8 ounces) of processed meat per day can increase cancer risk by 18%. While this relative risk assessment is projected by calculating an average intake over the lifetime, people should consider how easy it is to consume this much processed meat on a daily basis.
Two ounces of processed meats is the equivalent to:
- The amount of deli meat on a 6-inch Subway sandwich
- Two slices of bacon
- One average-sized hotdog
- The amount of lamb on your average gyro
Q: Why should I avoid processed meats?
A: For the average consumer, meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or the addition of preservatives may have formed carcinogens that can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer. The mechanisms that are explored for being the biggest contributors to processed meats carcinogenicity, include:
- Nitrates/Nitrites: Preservatives added to processed meats to preserve color and prevent spoilage.
- Smoking: Smoked meats contain PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), substances that are formed at high-heat and considered carcinogenic.
- Cooking at high temperatures: Meats cooked at high temperatures can also contain PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can damage DNA.
- Heme iron: The heme iron found in red meat may damage the lining of the colon.
Q: What about all those "nitrate-free" hot dogs, bacon and other "uncured" meat products?
A: Packaged meat products have recently started to state “all-natural” and/or “no nitrites or nitrates added” on the front of package labeling. This often indicates that sodium nitrite and/or sodium nitrate have not been added. However, since “all-natural” processed meats are not always palatable to consumers, it's very rare to find a product that is totally nitrate-free. Instead, products may contain naturally occurring nitrates from vegetable sources such as root veggies like carrots and beets, as well as leafy greens and celery. A common ingredient used is celery salt, which contains naturally occurring nitrates that are converted in the body to nitrites. These naturally occurring nitrates may also converted to nitrites in the body.
Additionally, "all-natural" and "uncured" processed meat alternatives have not been studied to the extent of traditional processed meat. Until more research has been conducted to make comments on the safety of these alternatives, it may be wise to limit consumption of these processed meat options as well.
So if there are to be no sandwiches in the school lunchbox or hotdogs for an easy grill-out on Halloween, what is anyone supposed to feed their families now?
I challenge you to make an honest evaluation of how much processed meat your family eats. While it doesn't have to be eliminated forever and always, you are wise to save it for special occasions. Then, find creative new substitutes to enjoy instead:
- For breakfast, enjoy eggs with a side of sweet potato hash or avocado for a filling yet healthy alternative to your traditional bacon or sausage links. In frittatas, add deep flavor with herbs, spices, and sauteed veggies instead of ham or crumbled sausage. Or, switch up your routine with plenty of meat-alternatives like nut butters on toast, in green smoothies, and mixed into oatmeal. Add Greek yogurt on the side or into any of those too for an even more protein-rich way to start your day!
- For lunch, consider homemade turkey, salmon, or portabella mushroom burgers that you can later top with vegetarian options like hummus spreads, avocados, and lots of crispy vegetables. Or make your own chicken, tuna, egg, or avocado+chickpea salad recipes to enjoy with a salad or crackers.
- Grilling out natural choices like chicken breast, shrimp, salmon, or combination veggie skewers offer fresh and festive alternatives to the traditional hotdog.
What processed meat is most difficult for your family to cut back on and/or avoid? Comment below and let's come up with realistic ideas to help you reframe how to fit it into an oveall healthy diet.