Bacon, sausages, hot dogs, pepperoni, luncheon meat… These tasty cuts are an established part of the great Kiwi diet. At barbecues, on pizzas, in sandwiches, alongside a couple of eggs for breakfast, or inside a bun at the game – we consume mountains of the stuff. But are preserved meats really just an innocent indulgence, or are they a dangerous food we’d be better off avoiding?
Cured and processed meats and their links to various dangerous health conditions have been studied for decades and the results aren’t pretty. For instance:
- A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that subjects who ate more processed meat increased their chances of colorectal cancer by 50%.
- A study in Los Angeles between 1980 and 1987 found that children who ate more than 12 hot dogs per month had 9 times the normal risk of developing childhood leukaemia.
- A Denver study found that children of mothers who ate one or more hotdogs a week had double the risk of developing childhood brain tumours.
- A Swedish investigation that analysed data from 15 studies run between 1966 and 2006 involving 4700 patients found that the risk of stomach cancer rose as levels of processed meat consumption increased.
- Increased incidences of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, DNA mutations, and pancreatic cancer have all also been linked to the consumption of cured meats.
So what is it about processed meats that makes them so suspect? The ingredient most likely to blame is a compound called sodium nitrite.
Sodium nitrite is used by the processed meat industry to preserve the colour of meat, to keep it nice and pink looking after the curing/cooking process. Cook a piece of red meat and it turns brown-grey, so why is bacon so pink? Oftentimes it’s because sodium nitrite has been added.
Sodium nitrite is also used in processed meat as a preservative as it functions as an anti-microbial agent and inhibits the growth of botulism.
What’s So Bad About Sodium Nitrite?
In a word – nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines are carcinogenic chemicals that promote the formation of various cancers throughout the body.
When meat containing sodium nitrite is cooked at high temperatures the sodium nitrite causes the production of nitrosamines. Similarly, when meat containing sodium nitrite is eaten and encounters the high pH levels of the stomach nitrosamines are formed.
Sodium nitrite is also found in green leafy vegetables. Here, though, it is thought that certain compounds also found in these vegetables prevent the conversion of sodium nitrite into nitrosamines.
Is it Worth the Risk?
It has been suggested that the amount of sodium nitrite found in meats is not great and that its health risk as a precursor of nitrosamines is therefore not significant.
Whether or not sodium nitrite is actually the cause of the negative health effects of cured meats, however, may be a moot point from a consumer point of view. The mounting scientific evidence linking these meats with various cancers, whatever the actual chemical cause, must surely raise a red flag for the household grocery list. Is that crispy slice of bacon or that tempting frankfurter really worth the risk?
If you really can’t give up those tasty morsels what are your options?
More and more producers are providing meats cured by means that don’t involve the use of sodium nitrite – seek these alternatives out in your supermarket.
Vitamin C prevents the formation of nitrosamines, in fact vitamin C is added to many processed meats for this very reason. If you want to protect yourself even further, you could try taking a vitamin C supplement before tucking into that bacon sandwich.
Lean more about processed meats in this video.