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You Have Heard That Processed Meats Cause Cancer But Do You Understand Why?

Susanna Sisson's picture
WHO says processed meat causes cancer

I majored in chemistry in college before I decided to get my nursing degrees. So, I think about everything I eat. I also read labels. In general, though I eat only fresh products and stay away from the inner aisles of the grocery store and processed meat products. So, for me, the recent news from the World Health Organization that processed meat and even red meat cause cancer is old news, about 30 years old to be exact.


They say “you are what you eat” and well, I don’t exactly want to be a polska kielbasa sausage, do you?

In 1995 there were probably about 200 kinds of sausages, luncheon meats, hams and canned meats available to consumers and today there’s no telling how many products there are. In addition, there are “meat” products that are less meat then fillers, some of which I cringe to think about. The use of non-meat ingredients, or additives, provides the meat industry with the flexibility needed for the development of a wide diversity of products.

Processed meat products are required by law to have an ingredient statement on the product label. Ingredients are listed in order of predominance. So, the first ingredient listed would be the primary ingredient and the last would be the least in amount.

What you might find on the typical ingredient list, would be something like "beef, pork, water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, salt, dextrose, corn syrup, malto-dextrin, hydrolyzed milk protein, sodium phosphate, natural spices, natural flavoring (such as maple) which may actually come from the herb fenugreek and is a phytoestrogen, smoke flavoring, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite." Each additive has specific functions in the product but in actuality it’s just chemical soup.

Water is usually added to many products for several reasons, obviously to make the product less dry but adding water improves tenderness and juiciness. Water also serves as a processing aid when the product is manufactured. Like other ingredients, the amount of water that may be used in a product is regulated by the government.

Some products may contain extenders and binders such as vegetable and milk proteins, nonfat dry milk, dried whey, soy, and cereal flours, sugars or maltodextrin. These ingredients function to hold the product together, improve flavor, texture and cooking yield. In general, processed meat products may not contain more than 3.5 percent extenders or binders unless labeled as an imitation product. Salt is used as a seasoning and a preservative, but in addition, it functions to bind a product together and most processed meats have high sodium content for that reason.

Sodium erythorbate is used to improve and maintain the color of processed meats and ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, sodium ascorbate and erythorbic acid are also used for this purpose.

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Many different spices are used to give meat products distinctive flavors. Red, white and black pepper, mustard, garlic, allspice and cinnamon are among the spices most commonly used in sausages. Liquid smoke is sometimes added to meat products to provide a smoky flavor and aroma. Sweeteners such as dextrose and corn syrup are also used to enhance flavor. The addition of sugars or sweeteners to a product will also increase browning of meat during cooking. Maltodextrin is an artificial sugar (also known as a polysaccharide) that has a mild, sweet taste and is used as both binder and flavor enhancer. It's usually created from corn and wheat but can also be made from rice, potatoes and tapioca. While it's a commonly used food additive and binder found in many types of packaged foods and meats is it really necessary?

Phosphates are used to enhance juiciness and texture. These chemicals help prevent fat from becoming rancid in products such as ham, bacon and cooked sausages. The amount of phosphate that can be used in meat products is limited to a maximum of 0.5 percent. That means that no more than 8 ounces of phosphate can be used in 100 pounds of finished product.

Processed meats are manufactured using sodium nitrite which contributes to the characteristic flavor and color of cured meats, helps to prevent rancidity and serves to inhibit the growth of some microorganisms in processed meat products. But, during the process of cooking certain meats, sodium nitrites combine with naturally present amines in the meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are associated with an increased risk of cancer. When ingested, these compounds are associated with cancer, according to the study.

There are over 500 studies reflecting the dangers of processed meats and cancer at The National Library of Medicine.

One such study by the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and the University of Southern California suggests a link between eating processed meats and cancer risk. The study followed 190,000 people, ages 45-75, for seven years and found that people who ate the most processed meats had a 67% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least amount. As if that weren’t bad enough studies show that cooking meat at high temperatures or grilling also adds to carcinogenic effct.

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating no more than about 16 ounces of cooked red and/or processed meat per week. For reference, about 3 ounces of cooked meat is roughly the size of a deck of cards.

Here are simple ways to reduce red meat and processed meat consumption:

• Eat more fish and poultry into your weekly diet.
• Include beans and legumes in your diet.
• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain cancer-protective properties.
• Incorporate more eggs or egg whites into your diet.

1. http://www.cancercenter.com/discussions/blog/the-link-between-sodium-nitrites-and-cancer/
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=processed+meat+and+cancer