While eating meat can offer nutritional benefits like increased protein, iron and B vitamins, reaching for processed items may be detrimental to your health. Processed meat, although not technically defined, is generally considered any animal product that has gone through a treatment process to extend shelf life and/or change color and flavor. This preservation is typically achieved through salting, curing, smoking, or adding synthetic preservatives. Examples of processed meats include luncheon meat like bologna, ham, corned beef, and bacon as well as meats in casing like hot dogs, sausage and salami.
Many of these products are created through curing, which is the addition of salt, sugar and/or nitrates. These additives help slow bacterial growth, which increases shelf life and therefore creates a less perishable product. Nitrates are used to inhibit the growth of botulism, a dangerous food-borne illness. Unfortunately, they convert to nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens (substances that are cancer-causing). This occurs when they bond with amino acids, which are the molecules that make up proteins (and are therefore present in meat). This can occur during processing or even in the stomach after eating.
These nitrosamines have been seen in observational studies to raise the risk for stomach and colorectal cancers. Whether these risks are related directly to processed meat consumption or poor overall diet should be considered, as studies have found strong associations between poor lifestyle choices and high consumption of processed meat; that is, those who make unhealthy choices like smoking or drinking alcohol in excess are more likely to consume higher amounts of processed meat.
However, later studies focused on a specific link, and a relationship has been found between processed meat intake and increased risk of early death, especially due to heart disease and cancer. A 12-year research study found that the men who ate the most processed meat had a 28% higher chance of developing heart failure than those who ate less processed meats (like steak as opposed to deli meats, for example). Even after taking into account other factors, processed meat consumption was still shown to raise the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer.
Beyond nitrates, processed meats are also that very high in sodium. High levels of dietary sodium can cause high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Some producers have started using more natural alternatives in order to create organic luncheon meats. These are still, however, processed meats that can be just as high in sodium or fat. Unfortunately, just because it says "no nitrates added" does not mean that the meat is completely free of nitrates. Food companies can add vegetable juices or extracts that may be converted to nitrate/nitrite during processing.
At the end of the day, these meats are highly processed products. The American Institute for Cancer Research states that eating regular amounts of processed meat will increase your risk for cancer. They can be high in fat and sodium, and therefore should not be consumed regularly. Rather than focus on finding "nitrate-free" processed meat, consider choosing whole foods instead. A simple solution is to cook your own meat at home. Unprocessed meat is free from any added salt and preservatives; try to cook a large amount ahead of time to keep in the fridge for sandwiches.
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Carolyn McAnlis, RDN, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has a special interest in preventing chronic disease through nutrition. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science & Dietetics and a minor in Psychology. After completing a full-time dietetic internship at the University of Virginia Health System, she has developed a passion for convincing others that healthy food can be delicious through her blog A Dietitian in the Kitchen.