On the Chopping Block: Bacon, Ham, Hot Dogs & Salami…

If you picked up a paper last week or turned on the news you will have heard that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, published their findings on the carcinogenicity of red and processed meat. This group of 22 international expert concluded that processed meat should be classified as “carcinogenic” (ie causes cancer) to humans (Group 1) based on sufficient evidence from over 800 studies.

They concluded that red meat should be classified “probably carcinogenic” to humans (Group 2A) based on limited evidence that the consumption of meat causes colorectal cancer.

Group 1 classifications show that there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer. Group 2A classifications means that the agent is probably carcinogenic to humans. The experts found a positive association between red meat and colorectal cancer; however, other explanations cannot be ruled out.

What is Processed Meat?chopped bacon and salami on a plate

Processed meat is meat that is not fresh and that has been transformed through curing, smoking, salting, fermentation, addition of preservatives or other processes to enhance flavour or prolong preservation. Examples include hot dogs, salami, bologna, ham, corned beef, and jerky.

What is Red Meat?

For the purposes of these studies red meat includes beef, lamb, veal, mutton, horse, goat and, yes, even “the other white meat”, pork.

What’s the Risk?

Researchers found that the risk is dose-dependent, that means, the more you eat, the
higher the risk. Studies showed that for every 50 grams (1.7 ounces) of processed meat eaten daily, it increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.

The risk in consuming red meat is more difficult to quantify; however, researchers estimate that the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17% for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of red meat eaten daily.

These are ballpark figures and every person’s risk will be different as cancer development is due to a multitude of factors, some known, some unknown.

How Does Processed & Red Meat Cause Cancer

There are multiple ways in which red and processed meat may cause cancer although the precise mechanisms are still up for debate. One potentially causative factor is due to the heme iron contained in red meat. Once digested, it may cause damage to the lining of our colon (mucosa). This damage then spurs on cellular replication in order to commence the healing process. This added replication can increase the chance of DNA errors in the new cells which can develop into the early stages of cancer.

Processed red meat will have naturally occurring heme iron as well as added nitrites or nitrates to help the preservation of the products. These nitrites and nitrates are converted in our bodies to form n-nitroso compounds which are the cancer causing agents.

Cooking meat at high temperatures and until well done can cause the formation of another
carcinogen called heterocyclic amines. Barbecuing meat can also cause the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are another type of carcinogen.

What to do:

If you have colorectal cancer in your family you may wish to avoid processed meat as much as possible. For all others, having processed meat as infrequently as you are able is a good first step. Keep the ham, salamis and sausages for very special treats.

The evidence for red meat is not as strong and it bears reminding that red meat does contain important nutrients such as protein, zinc, iron and vitamin B12. However, it does make sense to be mindful of the amount of red meat we are eating. Keeping within the guidelines produced by the Canadian Cancer Society is a good start. They recommend limiting red meat to three 85 gram (3 ounce) servings per week for adults.

When you do enjoy your red meat try not to char, burn or use high temperatures while cooking. Using wet cooking methods like braising or stewing can reduce the formation of carcinogens.

Choose fish over meat and aim to have vegetarian days a couple times a week. Get friendly with lentils, edamame, chickpeas and lots of veg. The die-hard carnivores often enjoy mushrooms for their meaty texture.

Ham-Free Lunch Box Ideas

After this news broke I received numerous queries from parents on what to put in their children’s lunchbox as ham and salami were a mainstay for many families.

Here are some healthy lunchbox alternatives to put between two pieces of bread:

  • Wild Salmon Salad – tinned salmon with squeeze of lemon juice, small spoonful of mayo and chopped cucumber and celery. For adventurous kids green onions and capers give this sandwich a great zing.
  • Grilled Veggies with Hummus – stick to what your kids like, if it’s just red peppers for now, great, if you can add zucchini and eggplant, even better. A thick spread of hummus will provide a source of protein.
  • Bananas & School-Safe Butters – pumpkin seed butter with slices of bananas (I won’t tell if you add a drizzle of honey or jam). I often roll this up in a whole grain tortilla.
  • Blended Veggie Bagel – steam cauliflower and broccoli until soft. Add a dollop of plain or herbed cream cheese and blend together to make a spread. Spread on a whole grain bagel for a healthy twist on plain cream cheese.
  • Coronation Chicken Pitas – chicken is already a popular sandwich filling but try switching up the flavours by making a British classic: coronation chicken.

Coronation Chicken Pitas

  • 2 tbsp natural Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp mild curry powder
  • 1 tsp mango chutney
  • 1/4 ripe mango, peeled and chopped into small 2cm pieces (if available)
  • Small bunch of cilantro leaves (about 5), chopped (optional)
  • 1.5-2 ounces of roast chicken, chopped into 2 cm pieces
  • 1 green leaf lettuce, washed & torn
  • 2 mini whole grain pitas

Add the yogurt, curry powder, chutney together in a bowl and mix to combine. Fold in the chicken, fresh mango and cilantro. Fill two mini whole grain pitas with chicken mixture and a few pieces of fresh green leaf lettuce.

More Information:

  • Cancer Below the Belt: http://nutritionsavvy.ca/cancer-below-the-belt/
  • http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
  • http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)00444-1/abstract
  • http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/#
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