How Healthy Are Cured and Processed Meats?

Do you love sharing a fancy charcuterie plate with friends or having a hot dog with all the fixin’s while you watch the game? If yes, you’re not alone. The question is, how healthy are they for us, really? Here’s the 101 on cured and processed meats.

What does “cured” and “processed” meat mean?

What is cured meat?

Curing usually involves preserving food by adding salt to remove water and increase the food’s shelf life. Curing may also include smoking or cooking, as well as adding spices, sugar and nitrates or nitrites (such as potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite–naturally occurring chemical compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen) to prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms. They’re also responsible for cured meat’s pink or reddish hue. Without them the meat would quickly turn brown.

What is processed meat?

Similarly, processed meat has been salted, smoked, cured or fermented to enhance its flavor and improve preservation. In addition to list above, processed meat includes any kind of deli meat (a.k.a. cold cuts, lunch meats) including turkey, roast beef, chicken and pork.

Examples of Cured and Processed Meats

Examples include:

  • Bacon
  • Ham
  • Sausages (e.g. bratwurst, kielbasa, chorizo and knockwurst)
  • Hot dogs
  • Salami
  • Pastrami
  • Corned beef
  • Bologna
  • Prosciutto
  • Jerky
  • Spam
  • Pepperoni
  • Pancetta and mortadella.

Are cured and processed meats “bad” for me?

Here’s the bad news: nitrates and nitrites have been linked to various types of cancer. The good news? The amount found in cured foods is relatively low. (It’s worth noting that nitrates occur naturally in healthy foods including spinach, arugula, beets and celery.) But, especially if you’re prone to migraine headaches, it’s probably a good idea to avoid cured and processed meats since nitrates and nitrites can be a trigger.

Since curing involves preserving food by adding salt, most cured meats are very high in sodium. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 2,300 milligrams a day, with an ideal target of no more than 1,500 mg a day for most adults. High sodium levels have been linked to hypertension (high blood pressure) and increased risk of cardiovascular disease (such as coronary artery disease and stroke). Even if you’re not too worried about high blood pressure, eating high-sodium foods can also contribute to weight gain.

Recently, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report stating that cured and processed meats are strongly linked to cancer (colon cancer in particular), leading them to classify processed meat as a carcinogen. IARC found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day (about four slices of bacon or one hot dog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

While other factors may have contributed to these findings, the strong positive correlation between eating cured meat and cancer (e.g., as the quantity of cured meat eaten increases, so does cancer risk), and the fact that eating a lot of processed meat has also been linked to higher diabetes risk, it’s a good idea to stick to fresh, whole meats as much as possible and make cured meats an occasional “treat.”

When you do buy them, it’s worth spending a bit more for higher-quality brands with fewer additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients. All the more reason to make it a “treat” food rather than a regular part of your diet.

Are uncured meats and products that don’t include nitrates and nitrites “healthier?”

The term “uncured” is a bit of a misnomer. Conventionally cured meats use chemicals and additives while uncured meats use natural salts and flavorings. Products may be labeled “uncured,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is nitrite- or nitrate-free–they are simply sourced from natural foods. So while choosing uncured meats is a slightly healthier choice, an uncured bacon-rich diet is still less healthy for you than a diet rich in fresh vegetables with naturally-occurring nitrites. [winks]

I love sliced deli meats. What else can I put on my sandwich?

Need a few quick and easy protein ideas? Consider these options for your next packed lunch:

  • Whip up a batch of tuna, chicken, canned salmon or egg salad. Use ripe avocado or plain Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise for a healthier fat option. Serve with veggies on one slice of 100% whole grain bread or a bed of greens.
  • Buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, remove the skin and make chicken salad or add it to a garden salad, homemade soups and casseroles.
  • Make a large batch of meatloaf with chicken, turkey or lean beef and slice it for (ideally open-faced) sandwiches for the week.
  • Try cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt topped with veggies or fruit. 
  • Go plant-based for a meal or two. Add tempeh to a veggie-filled whole-grain wrap or have a handful of edamame on the side of a veggie dish for extra protein.

Check out this link for even more tips and healthy ideas.

Yes Health is a low-cost, weight loss and diabetes-prevention program committed to helping everyone live healthier, happier lives.