The latest science Poor old red meat has a bad rep these days, and that’s partly because it gets lumped in with its more artificially enhanced brethren – bacon, cured ham, frankfurters and other types of pre-packed, processed meat. And although there are similarities between the two, there are more causes for concern when eating the processed stuff, including cooking-based carcinogens and the sodium nitrate used to preserve them. So how bad are they, really?
Newsflash: not that bad. Yes, processed meat’s been associated with an increased risk of various cancers, especially the colorectal kind, compared with red meat – but the risk is relatively small. A 50g increase in daily processed meat consumption, according to a 2011 meta-analysis, bumps your chances of cancer from about five in 1,000 to almost six – a risk you might be able to live with, or offset by eating more veg. Are there other reasons not to live on hot dogs? Well, yes…
The expert take “Apart from the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can form during meat processing, the big problem is that excess sugar, salt and fat such as artificial trans fats – the worst type of fat – are often added to processed meat in order to improve to the taste or texture and increase shelf life,” says James Rutherford, a nutritionist and Bio-Synergy ambassador. “This tends to make them very calorie-dense and easy to overeat – which is another reason it’s recommended by most health organisations that intake of processed meats such as bacon, sausages, smoked meat and so on should be limited.
“Eating them occasionally will provide no real health risk but a persistent high intake certainly could. The majority of your nutritional intake should be from fresh whole foods, with processed foods making up a small portion.”
Do eat A moderate amount of bacon: about 40% of its fats are monounsaturates, including a hit of heart-healthy oleic acids. If you’re being ultra-cautious, stick to the unsmoked variety, which has fewer preservatives and additives.
Don’t eat Over-processed shop-bought burgers: make your own from lean mince, an egg and some finely-diced veg. Sausages are trickier – if you aren’t about to start skinning your own, aim for fresh, traditionally-made versions with minimal “roughage”.