Consider the holiday ham – that slab of perfectly pink pork that sits at the center of many American dinner tables at Christmas celebrations.
While it isn’t fried up like bacon or of questionable origin like hot dogs, cured ham is another processed red meat that should be approached with caution. Pork has its dangers – from superbugs in hogs treated with low doses of antibiotics to the effects of the chemicals used to preserve it.
What’s in a holiday ham?
Ham refers to the thigh meat of an animal – in this case, pork. It can be fresh, cured or cured-and-smoked, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat production. When people talk about eating “ham,” they’re usually referring to city ham (as opposed to country ham), which gets its flavor through a traditional method of wet-curing.
Wet-curing equals brining. The meat either soaks in a solution for a period of time or is injected with it. Cheaper meat usually undergoes an injection of a solution of chemicals. The USDA says brining solutions can include salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, water and flavorings (like liquid smoke).
In the mess of chemical names, there’s one we recognize: salt. Ham requires a lot of salt to preserve the meat and kill Trichinella spiralis, a parasite often found in hogs. One cup of ham (or 140 grams) contains 70 percent of the recommended daily value of sodium. Too much salt can damage your kidneys or lead to high blood pressure.
Nitrates and nitrites may sound an alarm in your mind. They are included in the solution as a preservative, but they also enhance flavors and contribute the characteristic rosy coloring. They’re also the chemicals that make processed red meat dangerous. The Environmental Working Group included them on the first Dirty Dozen Guide for Food Additives last year. (Phosphates are on that list, too.)
Nitrates and nitrites form nitrosamines in the human body, which are considered carcinogenic. They occur naturally in all kinds of food, including vegetables like spinach, but there’s a difference between naturally occurring and added nitrates/nitrites, according to Healthy Child, Healthy World, a parent-focused research and advocacy branch of the Environmental Working Group.
“The naturally occurring nitrates in food come with vitamin C and other compounds that inhibit conversion into nitrosamines. There is no data to suggest that naturally occurring nitrates are harmful,” according to Healthy Child.
For this reason, in October, the World Health Organization concluded that regularly eating processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
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Sodium nitrate also increases your risk of heart disease, according to Mayo Clinic:
“It's thought that sodium nitrate may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease. Nitrates may also affect the way your body uses sugar, making you more likely to develop diabetes.
"And you already know that most processed meats are high in sodium and some are high in saturated fat, which can disrupt a heart-healthy diet.”
Though it isn’t listed in the brine solution, many processed meats, including ham, contain MSG – or monosodium glutamate. It’s a flavor-enhancing additive that the Federal Drug Administration “generally considers safe” but that remains controversial. Any ham containing MSG must include a label. People report adverse reactions to food with MSG, including headaches, chest pain, nausea, and numbness, according to Mayo Clinic.
What’s the alternative?
Like most things, your holiday traditions are your choice. Maybe it’s time to start a new one? If you have control over whether you have holiday ham at your meal, consider serving a vegetarian meal or trying a different kind of meat.
If the ham isn’t under your purview, keep moderation in mind. Limiting your intake of processed meat is the next best thing to nixing it completely.
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Holiday ham photo via Shutterstock