There’s no denying it: processed meat has a bad rep. Linked to a range of serious health issues, including heart disease, obesity, cancer and even an increased risk of early death, the pitfalls of too much processed meat can’t be ignored. But is it yet more speculative scaremongering or do you really need to strike it off your shopping list?
So what's a processed meat?
In a nutshell, processed meats, are meats that have been smoked, cured, salted or treated with preservatives.
Processed meats come in a number of guises. Wafer thin turkey ham, pre-prepared chicken chunks and ham slices from who knows where, and let’s not forget, tinned hot dogs.
Then there’s charcuterie: Spanish chorizo, four-month matured air dried salami and smoky prosciutto; maple-cured bacon; peppercorn studded sausages and long strips of trendy beef jerky.
One set definitely feels more premium but they’re all still processed meats.
Are they all the same?
There is a difference between a matured slice of prosciutto and a hyper-processed supermarket luncheon meat but not fundamentally.
Whether a processed meat is produced in a high-tech, colossal factory or a rural hill farm in Iberia, they’re all made with less-desirable cuts of meat from various animals. In all likelihood, one slice of salami could contain various scraps from scores of different pigs.
Whilst smoking, curing and salting are traditional methods for preserving meat, whatever the product: all are seasoned with spices, sugar and preserving agents.
This means, all processed meats are loaded with extra fat, salt, sugar and additives. So no matter the price, curing process or quality credentials: in terms of the effects on the body, these products are essentially the same.
What are the health risks?
Processed meats are nutritionally poor. Whilst you might think you’re adding more protein to your diet, filling up on processed meat certainly won’t do your health any favours.
When meat is processed by smoking, curing, salting or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances, called carcinogens, can be formed. According to research by the World Cancer Research Fund, these substances can damage cells in the body, which lead to the development of cancers. Not to mention a significant higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Grim stuff.
Should I be eating it?
You can still enjoy processed meats without the fear of long-term health problems, as long as it’s in moderation. A sausage sandwich here and there, a charcuterie tapas platter over a glass of wine are perfectly fine once in a while, but definitely not every day.
Although there is a lot of research that suggests processed meats are harmful to your genetic makeup, lifestyle choices can be equally important. If your diet is high in vegetables, fruits and whole foods then a few slices of salami aren’t going to hurt anyone but if you tuck into a ‘reformed ham’ sandwich every day, it may be worthwhile to look at the alternatives.
What can I eat instead?
It doesn’t have to be meat-free or boring. Our advice: it’s best to go homemade. It may seem like a lot of hassle but you’ll be surprised how little time and effort it takes to make standard meat delicious.
Spice your pork chops with paprika; butterfly grill chicken breast or try frying thinly sliced strips of beef. Make your own spice rub with black pepper, ginger, salt and coriander and rustle up unbelievably flavoursome tuna steaks and grilled salmon.
If it all sounds a bit pricey for a lunchtime meal, opt for meats that have been cut from the bone. Whilst, ham slices from the butcher’s counter are still processed, they are less processed than the pseudo-meat you’ll find pre-packaged on the luncheon meat aisle.
The bottom line
Eat processed meats in moderation. Whilst that Italian-spiced chorizo might be tempting, it’s still a processed meat. Don’t be fooled by the premium packaging and cosmopolitan allure. Whether it’s a tinned hot dog or Germany’s finest bratwurst, a processed meat is still a processed meat.