You may have heard about the recent quite scary health claims by the World Health Organisation claiming that processed meats in general are carcinogenic (will cause cancer), and that red meat is probably a likely culprit as well. Does this mean a lifetime of tofu and lentils? Should we all become vegetarians?
Lets take a look at what is causing the the increased risks of cancer from meat.
The use of nitrate salts for processing meats such as ham, bacon, sausages etc. has been around since the middle ages, as a way of preserving meat, as well as contributing to the characteristic pink colouring. It was an extremely helpful process to allow meat to be included in diets, contibuting essential nutrients in times before refrigeration/freezing was possible. Tastewise, preserved meats are incredibly popular, doesn’t bacon make pretty much anything taste amazing?
The issue with nitrates is that when they are digested, they lead to carcinogenic byproducts forming in the gut.
The smoking process, which has fantastic antibacterial and tenderising qualities, has the unfortunate side effect of producing a type of hydrocarbon which is cancer causing.
High temperature cooking
There are also carcinogenic effects that come with the high temperatures used in smoking meats, but this can also come with any high temperature form of cooking, such as if you are grilling, sautéing, caramelizing, or searing red meat, especially on a BBQ.
Colorectal (bowel) cancer appears to be the big one affected by processed meats. However… the Cancer Council Australia explains that of all people who are diagnosed with bowel cancer, only 1 in 6 of these people develop it from excess red/processed meat. So while overall risk for a 50 year old male may sit at 1 in 300, the risk of it being caused from any sort of meat is much lower.
How do I reduce my risk?
Keep to moderate portions of red meat, a few times a week, as it is actually a fantastic source of a lot of important nutrients, such as iron. A rough guide is the size of the palm of your hand. Try and include fish or white meat a few meals a week, and even a day or two of vegetarian options like tofu, lentils, or nuts is a great way to ensure a balanced diet while still getting in your protein. Cook meat with gentler methods, at lower temperatures, and a bit of pink is much better than well done. Use a marinate, or cook in liquids.
A byproduct of reducing your meat portions is that your meals should include extra vegetables/salad to make up for it, which are rich in cancer fighting antioxidants. Pick richly coloured vegetables, and ensure you have some dark green ones in the mix. The added fibre in your diet is yet another protective element against cancer.
Lastly- just use your common sense, try and limit processed meats to just occasional foods, not everyday foods. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a hot Sunday morning breakfast! Processed meats are often higher in fat, salt, and calories anyway, so limiting them, regardless of any cancer causing factors, is a sensible healthy choice regardless.