How healthy is processed meat?
You might expect me to say it is completely healthy. You’d be wrong, to a degree. There is a correlation between nitrate / nitrite consumption so much to say the World Health Organisation have called it a probable carcinogen. A recent study by The International Agency for Research on Cancer which reviewed 800 studies on the subject found that people who ate 50 g of processed meat (4 rashers of bacon or 1 hot dog a day) had an 18% greater risk of bowel cancer. Sounds scary doesn’t it? The chances of getting bowel cancer during your lifetime is 5% and eating this amount of processed meat each day increases this risk to 6%.
But who eats that much processed meat?
It’s not scientific, and I would like to say I love bacon, ham, biltong and goodness knows I make enough of it, along with the odd pork pie. But I did a quick total of my average week of meals, and I found myself eating 200 g of processed meat.
Now that would increase my cancer risk by only 9%, and my lifetime % chance of bowel cancer would be 5.4%, in other words, of 200 deaths, 0.8 of one of those deaths would have statistically been to using nitrates / nitrites in processed meat, at my level of consumption.
But there is more, nitrates / nitrates are also considered important for health
No, I don’t mean that it cuts down on the bacterial load, I’m coming to that later. A paper in Cardiovascular Research (11th Oct 2010) pointed to the cardiovascular benefits of NO (nitric oxide formed from nitrite) and postulated the formation of a renewed theory of the benefits of eating nitrate rich vegetables, such as spinach.
Regardless of how much organic or inorganic fertiliser you add to the soil, spinach accumulates nitrates which in turn is converted to nitrites and thence to nitric oxide. A good helping of spinach has comparable concentrations of nitrate to processed meat.
By far the greatest problem in our food is the amount of salt, which causes no end of problems both arterial, renal and cardiovascular. It is found in almost all foods, particularly canned food and supermarket foods. The maximum allowed intake daily for an adult is 6 g, but this figure can be exceeded in a single meal.
What can I do?
The problem of making your own food is spoilage and the lack of testing. So you have to be sure. Botulism, or sausage disease, is a bacterial infection that is deadly, and is controlled by the amount of nitrate / nitrite in the product.
Making your own processed meats needs to be perfectly clean, the quantities need to be spot on and you need to be sure about the final product. If in doubt : throw it out!
Consider, for frequent use, making green bacon. I make green bacon with non iodised salt and sugar and other flavours such as mustard. It isn’t pink, but it is very bacon. I also vacuum seal it and freeze the packets until I need them.
Consider using premixed curing salts that have exactly the right amount of nitrate in them, completely mixed by machine, so you can’t overdose your cured products.
Simply eat less! I consider myself as a processed meat fanatic, but I don’t eat it every day, I don’t sprinkle bacon on my salad every time I have one, and like everything else a good all round balanced diet with exercise is important.
Until recently, well 1962, the amount of nitrate in meat was not controlled. An American study fed rats a 10% diet of nitrates and found there to be little observable effect, and then went on to divide this according to differences in mass between people and mats and came up with a figure of the daily intake of nitrates, which then became a limit on the % of nitrate in a salt cure.
In the early 19th century bacon and other processed meats had much larger amounts of nitrates / nitrites, but the growth in cancers have increased hugely in modern times.The combination of alcohol, pollutants, the huge number of enormous and potentially dangerous molecules such as pesticides possibly combine in a deadly cocktail.
The bottom line
People will try to tell you meat is not safe, I don’t believe them. Everyone has an opinion and I wouldn’t want to tell you what to do, but I for one will still be making, cooking and enjoying my processed meats, bacon, pork pies, hams, along with fish, vegetables, shrimps, salads, chillies, apples, tomatoes, lemons (oh lemons!) – sorry, getting carried away.