The World Health Organization this fall joined the chorus of health groups warning that bacon, hot dogs and other processed meats can cause cancer. Citing epidemiological studies, the organization said that small increases in the risk of colorectal cancer are associated with eating processed meats. An association with stomach cancer also exists.
Data analyzed from 10 studies estimated that eating 50 grams of processed meat daily increases a person’s relative risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent. Fifty grams of processed meat is two strips of bacon, or 2½ slices of bologna.
Unfortunately, there is no way to make processed meats safer, says Maria Erdman, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in oncology at Upstate. She said not enough research has been done on the new “nitrate-free” processed meats – which are processed with celery seed, a natural source of nitrates – to assess whether they are safer.
Centuries ago, before refrigeration, meats were smoked or salted to extend how long they would be edible. Nitrate was used in the form of saltpeter to cure meats and prevent the growth of the bacteria that causes the deadly disease botulism.
Meat processors eventually shifted to the closely related sodium nitrite because it was more reliable in its effects, and today, such preservatives are added to meats for flavoring, to improve the appearance or texture of the meat, and for food safety. The American Meat Institute points out that since sodium nitrite has been commonly used in commercially prepared meats, no cases of botulism have been linked to processed meats in the United States.
However, the WHO links about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide to diets high in processed meat. It also says a million people die each year from smoking tobacco.
Erdman likes to say that we all have health “bank accounts.” We make deposits when we do things that help our health, such as exercise and eat plant-based foods, and we make withdrawals when we do things that are harmful, such as eat bacon or smoke. She points out that smoking raises a person’s risk of developing cancer much, much more than does eating processed meats.
“It comes down, again, to moderation and thinking about what’s important to you,” she says. “We all take risks every day.”
How many, and which ones, are you comfortable taking?
To reduce your risk:
- Replace deli meats with fresh poultry or fish.
- Try vegetarian sausage instead of bacon, chorizo or salami.
- Replace sausage in chili and soup with kidney beans, chickpeas or lentils.
- Sample eggs, cottage cheese or hummus as protein sources.
- Save your favorite processed meats for special occasions.
Source: American Institute for Cancer Research