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What's the Definition of Processed Meat?

The reason that it’s hard to find a hard and fast definition for processed meat is that there isn’t one. Nutrition Diva makes sense of the madness. 

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #383

Personally, I don't classify fresh sausage as a processed meat because it’s basically just raw, ground meat in a casing. I also don’t consider sliced roast beef or turkey from the deli case to be processed meat because it’s essentially the same as turkey or beef that I cook at home and then slice up for sandwiches.

Ham, on the other hand, is processed because it’s been cured—and that’s true whether I cook it at home or get it sliced from the deli case. Hot dogs, bologna, kielbasa, salami, pepperoni, and bacon are also processed meats. If you’re not sure, use the shelf-life as a rule of thumb. If you can keep it in the fridge for more than a few days without it going bad, it’s probably processed.

And that’s true even if it’s organic, local, and/or preservative-free.

What About “Uncured” Bacon?

But uncured bacon is obviously OK, right? I mean, it's clearly labeled "uncured": You can’t get much more unambiguous than that, can you?

Actually, you can. The truth is that "uncured" bacon (and hot dogs and bologna) are all skating by on a technicality. They’ve usually been treated with celery juice or powder instead of sodium nitrite. But celery powder is simply a potent natural source of nitrates, which converts to nitrites in the meat. The process—and product—is essentially the same. But a labeling loophole allows products made with celery extract to be sold as "uncured."

When it comes to their effect on health and nutrition, I think cured and uncured bacon have to be viewed as equivalent.

How Strong Is the Case Against Processed Meats?

So what exactly is the problem with cured and processed meats, anyway? A lot of epidemiological evidence links consumption of cured and processed meats with increased risk of heart disease and cancer. The association is a little muddled by the fact that every study has a slightly different definition for processed meat. But the association is so consistent across so many studies and sufficiently significant in magnitude that it’s a hard to ignore.

There are also some plausible mechanisms to explain why these meats might be less healthful than fresh meat. I’ll mention just a couple: Nitrites in meat are converted into carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines in the digestive tract. Smoking meat or fish can create carcinogenic compounds called PAHs, which remain in the cooked product. Both of these offer plausible explanations for why consumption of these foods is linked to a higher rate of stomach and colon cancer.

See also: Are Nitrates and Nitrites Bad for You? and Does Grilled Meat Cause Cancer?

What's the Bottom Line on Processed Meat?

And now for the good news: Even if you love bacon more than your mother, there is no need to despair. There are two things often get short shrift in discussions about cured and processed meats: dose and context.

Let’s talk first about dose: The association between cured and processed meats and increased disease risks is only seen with very high consumption of these foods. Translation: You’re not going to give yourself cancer by eating a BLT or hot dog once a week. Neither are your kids. But it’s probably not a good idea to eat them every day—and that applies to those “uncured” products as well.  

See also: Why eating a hot dog won't kill you

And what do I mean by context? I mean: What are you eating that ham or smoked salmon or pepperoni with? Going back to the epidemiological evidence, we see that even when consumption of cured and processed meats is pretty high, those who also eat lots of fruits and vegetables appear to be protected from the negative effects.

There are plausible mechanism to explain this, as well. The antioxidants in vegetables can neutralize nitrosamines in the digestive tract and protect cells from the harmful effects. And people who eat more vegetables tend to take in more fiber, which helps to sweep harmful compounds out of the digestive tract.

Translation: Eat your vegetables—and try to eat a few extra on those occasions when you are enjoying some cured or processed meats.

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.