The Truth About Processed Meats

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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The Truth About Processed Meats

By definition, “processed meats” refer to meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemical preservatives (think ham, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, luncheon meats, salami and so forth). They have been linked to a variety of chronic illness ranging from cancer to heart failure to premature death with many of these claims backed by scientific evidence.

When it comes to processed meats, the media has certainly hammed up the hateful hype, but are they really all that bad? Here’s a closer look at what’s in most processed meats.

The Dark Side of Processed Meats

Processed meats often contain sodium nitrate, an ingredient used to protect us from bacteria that causes foodborne illness. But when in the acidic environment of your stomach, some of the nitrate is converted to nitrite, which binds to proteins in the foods we eat. Some of the nitrite-protein combo is converted into nitrosamine, a known carcinogen. Being exposed to nitrosamines over time can increase your risk for cancer.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) states that eating regular small amounts of processed meats will increase your risk for cancer. They cited a report finding those who ate 3.5 ounces (99 grams) of processed meat daily experienced increased colorectal cancer risk by 36% compared to those who don’t eat any processed meat. Of course, cancer stems from both genetic and environmental causes, but eating less processed meats is just one of the factors you can control.

Processed meats are also notoriously high in sodium. Most options contain upwards of 500 milligrams per 2-ounce serving (about 2 thin slices), which adds up to over 20% of your daily recommended amount. High sodium intake has long been associated with increased risk for high blood pressure. More recently, researchers have found evidence that, even in the absence of high blood pressure, high sodium intake in the diet can negatively affect organs, including the blood vessels, heart, kidneys and brain.

Some processed meats—like bologna, hot dogs and sausages—are higher in fats than others because they’re made by grinding and combining fatty cuts of meat. As a result, these options can be a sneak source of saturated fat and calories. The higher level of saturated fat and calories is something you should be mindful of especially if you want to eat a heart-healthy diet and/or lose weight.

How to Select Smarter Choices

While we know that eating less processed meat and reaching for the fresh stuff will make us healthier, it’s not always so clear cut. Processed meats may be cheaper to purchase; they have a long shelf-life and can be convenient when you grab a sandwich on the go.

The road to good health is littered with to-do’s, so if reducing processed meat isn’t currently on your radar, here are a few tips and tricks to select smarter slices:

1. Control your portion size. Many of us (myself included) suffer from portion distortion, and need to be mindful when we’re planning our plates. The typical portion size for processed meats is about 2 ounces (56 grams), but remember to check the nutrition label. For deli meats (like ham, turkey, roast beef), 2 ounces is about 2 slices.

2. Be on the sodium look out. It’s best to purchase low-sodium versions whenever possible. Look for options containing 350 milligrams of sodium or less per 2-ounce serving.

3. Beware of saturated fat. Lean processed meats, including turkey, ham and roast beef, are lower in total and saturated fat compared to bologna, pastrami, salami, hot dogs, sausages and corned beef. As a rule of thumb, you should select processed meats with about 2 grams of saturated fat or less per serving. Lean processed meats also contain 10 to 12 grams of protein per serving, which is more than what is found in fattier processed meats.

4. Don’t mind the “no nitrate/nitrite added” labels. This label is not helpful when deciding whether you should shell out extra money for a specific processed slice. Just because it says “no nitrate/nitrite added” doesn’t mean there’s none present. Food companies can add vegetable juices or extracts that may be converted to nitrate/nitrite on the finished product.

5. Pair processed meats with vitamin C. Remember the nitrite-protein combo that is converted to carcinogenic nitrosamine in your stomach? You can decrease the likelihood of this occurring by eating processed meats alongside foods that contain high levels of vitamin C (think citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, dark green veggies). Vitamin C blocks the chemical reaction that turns nitrites to nitrosamine, and is just another reason to eat more fruits and veggies.

6. Challenge your lunch box. If you’re used to eating processed meats regularly for lunch, say in a sandwich, try breaking out of this groove. Instead of using deli meats, mix it up with egg salad sandwich, tuna salad sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, and so forth. In fact, if you prefer a low-sodium diet, break out of the sandwich habit since they’re such a sodium bomb—deli meats, cheese and bread all contain appreciable amounts of sodium.

7. Faze out processed meats until they’re a once-in-a-while food. Enjoy processed meats occasionally as you would a holiday ham. While processed meats are a convenient option, they are far from the healthiest choice. If you regularly eat them for breakfast (think bacon and sausage) and lunch (deli meat), make it a goal to cut them out slowly from 1-2 times per day to 1-2 times per week.

How often do you eat processed meats? Share your thoughts and comments below.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.


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