I grew up loving turkey sandwiches and thought, for the most part, that they were good for me. I also loved bacon, sausage, salami, and hot dogs and ate them regularly without guilt.
But in the past few decades, research has shown that the processed meats that I enjoyed as a child weren't something I could continue to indulge in as an adult because they come with real risks. From heart disease to diabetes and colorectal cancer, enjoying bacon in a BLT or that so-called healthy turkey sandwich might not be worth it. And in the most recent research, scientists found that processed meats may increase a woman's risk of breast cancer as well. Here’s what you need to know.
What Exactly is Processed Meat?
Processed meat refers to any meat, whether it’s ham, pork, turkey, or beef that preserved in any way (cured, fermented, salted, etc.) to preserve its freshness. This includes bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats, sausage, bologna, etc.
That charcuterie platter that you order at a fancy restaurant is a form of processed meats in the same way as the bologna sandwich that you enjoyed in the 1980s.
Sodium nitrate, which has long been added to processed meats to kill botulism and other foodborne illnesses, is likely the culprit of the increased risk of cancer in those that consume it regularly.
What Does the Latest Research Say?
In one of the most recent studies on cancer and processed meats, researchers found that eating them increased a women’s risk of breast cancer. In a 2018 analysis of studies published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers found that women who regularly consumed processed meats increased their risk of breast cancer by 9 percent compared to women who infrequently consumed them. High consumption was considered to be around 25 to 30 grams per day (a typical one-ounce serving).
We already knew that consumption of processed meats increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 20-50 percent if consumed regularly, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer. Another study published in the December 2012 edition of the journal Circulation found eating processed meats also increased your risk of type-2 diabetes by 19 percent and heart disease by 42 percent. The bottom line among researchers is that processed meats should not be a regular part of your diet because of the risk they pose on your health.
The risk is not as high for unprocessed meats but it still exists. You need to eat a higher amount, around 100 grams daily (about a quarter pound) to increase your risk of cancer when consuming meats that are not preserved. But according to a study published in the December 2007 edition of PLOS Medicine, "red and processed meat intake appears to be positively associated with risk of cancer of the colon and rectum, esophagus, liver, lung, and pancreas in a large U.S. cohort study of 500,000 men and women."
What About Organic Brands?
The problem with processed meats goes far beyond whether it’s organic or so-called natural. Even products that don’t contain chemical nitrates have to contain a substitute in order to guard against the risk of foodborne illness. For example, natural or organic products that don’t contain nitrates contain a natural substitute like celery salt which turns to nitrates inside the body and still increases your risk of certain types of cancer.
Aren't Nitrates Also Found in Vegetables?
Nitrates are also widely found in vegetables and in many cases they can be a person’s largest source of the compound. But high consumption of vegetables decreases not increases your risk of cancer. So what's the rub? It all comes down to the way meats work in the system.
The difference could have something to do with heat and the presence of amino acids. Meats are high in protein, (a source of amino acids) and often times they’re exposed to high heat. When this happens nitrates turn into nitrosamines, a potent carcinogen and likely responsible for the increased risk of cancer in those that consume processed meats regularly.
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