Small changes make big differences.

Tuesdays with MOJO / Processed meat is NOT as bad as smoking, but...

Marjorie Spitz Rento1 Comment

Let's talk meat and cold cuts.  For years I've been encouraging my husband to avoid his much coveted Taylor Ham (apparently some spectacular NJ-specific ham used in an egg and cheese sandwich that brings a tear to the eye of those who grew up in NJ).  Perhaps the swamps of Jersey give it its particular taste.  Who knows?  To me, it falls into the mystery meat category of another poisonous processed product consumed in our breakfasts and lunches especially.  Sorry Rento’s!

I realize poisonous a powerful word, but frankly it pisses me off that there so many wonderful food alternatives available to our families, yet instead we are encouraged to integrate “healthy” sandwich meat into our diets every day, and they are killing us.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) caused a stir in the meat industry when they revised their guidelines around the consumption of processed meat to reduce the risk of cancer, finally backing up what doctors have been saying for years.  In particular, colorectal cancer, but also pancreatic and prostate cancer.

A summary of the reports says:  “An analysis of 10 of the studies suggested that a 50-gram portion of processed meat daily — or about 1.75 ounces — increases the risk of colorectal cancer over a lifetime by about 18 percent.” Note: An ounce and three-quarters is roughly equivalent to a hot dog or a few slices of bologna, though it depends on how thinly it is sliced.

“Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer in the U.S. is about 1 in 20, or 5 percent, according to the cancer society.  By the WHO's calculations, having a cold-cut sandwich every day would only raise that to around 6 percent.  However, in view of the large number of people who consume processed meat and the amount they consume, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

There are more than 30,000 new cases per year of colon cancer, so it is important we nip that in the bud now while we are at the phase where the trend could be reversed.

Before you sic the meat lobby on me a la the Texas ranchers vs. Oprah, let me first say that I do eat and love meat.  I am just selective about what kind and when. 

I get it.  You walk into your local deli and you order turkey and think you're doing yourself a favor. But if it's not fresh roast turkey then you could be doing the opposite. 

But let’s assume poultry is fine and focus on processed or deli meats like hot dogs, ham, sausage, bacon, salami, bologna and corned beef.  The WHO researchers defined processed meat as “anything transformed to improve its flavor or preserve it.”  These meats are treated during cooking by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemicals (among other things).

The problem is, not only are they high in saturated fat and sodium (sometimes containing the full allowable for a whole day), but they also have sodium nitrate, a preservative used to combat botulism.  During cooking, nitrates can react with compounds naturally present in meat to form potentially carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds.  Experts have long warned of the dangers of certain chemicals used to cure meat, such as nitrites and nitrates, which the body converts into cancer-causing compounds.  It is also known that grilling or smoking meat can create suspected carcinogens.

In addition, “grilling, pan-frying or other high-temperature methods of cooking red meat (defined as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat) produce the highest amounts of chemicals suspected of causing cancer.”

Sigh!  I love my summer bbqs as much as the next person, but grilling every day could be detrimental to your health.

Another study revealed in March 2014 says your age an important factor.  Findings suggest eating animal protein during middle age could be problematic, and considers how biology changes as we age and how decisions in middle life may play out across the human life span.

In other words, what’s good for you at one age may be damaging at another.  “Protein controls the growth hormone IGF-I, which helps our bodies grow but has been linked to cancer susceptibility. Levels of IGF-I drop off dramatically after age 65, leading to potential frailty and muscle loss. The study shows that while high-protein intake during middle age is very harmful, it is protective for older adults: those over 65 who ate a moderate- or high-protein diet were less susceptible to disease.” 

Plus there are environmental factors:  An estimated 20 percent of all greenhouse gases are attributable to raising animals for food. 

Now, eating meat is not as harmful as smoking, like some of the recent headlines suggest, and the WHO sent out a clarifying statement

You do NOT need to stop eating meat.  That ballpark frank -- go for it!  Just reduce your intake to reduce your risk of cancer. 

The bottom line is, you have to decide what works best for you.  For my family, I believe in rotating our proteins, so as not to rely on one in particular too heavily.

Usually I’ll eat one animal protein per day, and it’ll be as local, hormone free and humanely treated as possible (tip:  look for AWA -- Animal Welfare Approved -- on the label, and download the app as a resource).

To reduce your processed food intake, you can try that or:

  • Institute meatless Mondays or a “vegetarian before dinner” approach.
  • Use alternatives like fresh chicken, roast turkey, hummus or local fish on a sandwich.  Cook extra at dinner and use it for lunch the next day.
  • Avoiding charring your meat, and eating blackened sections.
  • Cook at low heat.
  • Choose meats that are “uncured” and contain no nitrates.
  • Avoid processed meats when possible, i.e. sausages, cold cuts, cured meats.
  • Use varieties that say “100% beef, chicken, etc.” without byproducts.
  • Ideally purchase from a small local farmer and sources that you trust.
  • Choose organic and grass fed meats.  
  • Get cancer screenings -- especially if you have a family history!

So let’s make an effort to understand what’s in our food.  Go ahead, chuck that processed meat sandwich and start switching ingredients out slowly over time.  Even small reductions will have a benefit and you’ll be surprised at how easily you can make the change!

Even my husband is transitioning.  Now he hasn’t totally given up his Taylor Egg and Cheese sandwiches, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.


Marjorie, Chief MOJO Maker™

Additional Resources:

American Instituted of Cancer Research FAQS

Is deli meat really bad for you?

IARC (WHO research organization) Q&A