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Can processed meat be healthy - and how much is the right amount to eat?

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We know that cigarettes cause cancer, and as a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to purchase them. We know that alcohol consumption is also associated with an increased risk of several types of cancer, and as such there are clear guidelines on the maximum amount of alcohol an adult should consume each week.

So, given that the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meat including pork as Group 1 (known to cause cancer), why are processed meats including pork, salami and bacon still freely sold in supermarkets (minus Any public health warning)?

Processed meats including salami and bacon are foods that have been enjoyed in many cultures for thousands of years, and are meats that have been processed through processing techniques such as curing, fermentation, smoking or salting to extend shelf life and add flavor and texture.

Immerse yourself in science

The main health concern related to processed meat is that it can contain compounds called N-nitroso chemicals that can damage cells in the intestinal wall, which can cause bowel cancer. In addition, the nitrate-based preservatives used in the manufacture of processed meat also produce the same chemical N-nitroso.

It is important to remember that the amount of processed meat we eat can increase over the course of a week.

Claire Hughes

While this science has been known for some time, the public health position to limit processed meat consumption has been endorsed by a number of major public health organizations including the Cancer Council of Australia, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and Harvard School. Public health, the question remains, if this food is potentially so dangerous to us, why is it still freely available for human consumption?

In fact, this is a question that was recently asked indirectly when a group of health researchers published a paper in Journal of Internal Medicine which concluded that based on a summary of the current data available, there is no need for adults to reduce their current consumption of processed meat.

A review of 61 scientific studies and more than 4 million people led investigators to conclude that “strong anti-meat” dietary recommendations are unjustified.

health recommendations

Current recommendations for Australians to consume no more than 455g of cooked lean meat each week and to avoid processed meat such as pork entirely.

There are no specific recommendations for kids, leaving parents in no man’s land, as many families rely on budget-friendly processed meats like ham as cost-effective sandwich fillings.

It also doesn’t take into account lower-fat types of processed meat, newer varieties that don’t have added nitrates, and whether these are “safer” options that can be enjoyed more freely.

Claire Hughes, director of the Nutrition Unit at the Cancer Council, understands that this is a complex area.

“Nitrate-free processed meats are relatively new, and as such the available evidence doesn’t distinguish between nitrate-free processed meats or not, so we recommend people limit their intake regardless,” she says.

“It is important to remember that the amount of processed meat we eat can increase throughout the week. It could be a breakfast of bacon and eggs on the weekends, then ham sandwiches for lunch as well as salami on the weekly pizza, as well as a mix of meats at Weekend grazing dishes. Here processed meat is consumed on more days than not.

“Once a week over pizza or a cooked breakfast on the weekend would probably be fine but if it’s something you find that you eat every day or most days of the week, it’s a good idea to look for ways you can cut costs and do so.” Include other alternatives such as unprocessed meats, seafood, eggs, legumes, and vegetables, especially if there is a family history of bowel cancer,” says Hughes.

Balance is the key

Another key point to consider is the other nutrient-rich foods that the family consumes.

Individual foods do not cause cancer in isolation, but rather cause dietary patterns over time. In other words, the overall balance of nutrients is the most important thing when it comes to health and disease risk.

This means that a diet full of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables with only the occasional processed meat (once or twice each week), is much better than a diet that includes a little fresh food, and a ham sandwich on white bread every day. lunch.

This may partly explain that while some cultures, such as Greece or Italy, may consume processed meat more liberally, there is still no greater rate of bowel cancer seen here in Australia.

Compare and contrast

Perhaps most important is understanding how the risks of eating processed meat regularly compare to other carcinogens such as cigarettes. It has been proven that individuals who eat 50 grams of processed meat per day have a 1.18 times greater risk of developing bowel cancer than those who do not eat processed meat at all.

In comparison, the worst increase in bowel cancer risk associated with eating processed meat is less than double that of lifetime smoking, which increases lung cancer risk by 50 percent.

This means that it may simply come down to choosing the lowest-fat processed meats you can find (free of added nitrates where possible), and enjoying them at most once or twice each week as a breakfast special, or on your favorite pizza, instead of your pizza . Daily sandwich stuffing.

Susie Borrell is a registered dietitian and nutritionist with a master’s degree in training psychology.