You've read the headlines. "Processed meats may cause cancer." Nitrates were listed by the WHO as a carcinogenic in 2015. So... should we be eating them? (and should WE be selling them?)
First, let's define processed meats. Processed meats are meats that have been preserved by smoking or salting, curing or adding chemical preservatives. These are your bacon, deli meats/cold cuts, hot dogs, jerky, pepperoni, snack sticks, and all those delicious hams and sausages in your charcuterie board. Curing meat has been a process that's been around for thousands of years... literally paintings in Sicily put the start of curing meats as far back as 40,00 BC.
Curing meat is a process that removes moisture from the meat through osmosis which in turn draws out potentially harmful bacteria. Most processes call for a mixture of salt and natural or synthetically derived nitrates that work to regulate moisture loss and preserve qualities such as color, flavor, and longevity.
Nitrates and nitrites are actually compounds that occur naturally in the human body and some foods, such as vegetables. Nitrates and nitrites can convert to either nitric oxide (which is beneficial to the body) or nitrosamines (which can be harmful). To convert to nitrosamines, a source of amines, chemicals related to ammonia that are found abundantly in protein foods, is required. Nitrosamines can also be created directly in foods through high-heat cooking, as with fried bacon.
In studying the research of the carcinogenic claims, I realize that once again, all the studies to date are observational studies, which cannot prove causation, but correlation- linking only the one food (in this case nitrates/nitrites) in your entire diet and lifestyle to a certain disease. And while there are studies that counter the position, nonetheless, the results have been fairly consistent in their results.
However, as with everything, dose makes the poison. While high levels of nitrates can cause harm, these are very difficult levels to reach in one sitting, and very unlikely to happen from food itself.
Some argue that a higher cause of concern is high levels of nitrate in water as a result of runoff or leakage from fertilized soil, wastewater, landfills, animal feedlots, septic systems, or urban drainage.
It’s also important to keep the cancer risk in context. While the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorises processed meat a carcinogen, the risk is quite small. In the UK, for example, six out of 100 people will get bowel cancer in their lives. Of those who eat 50 grams processed meat (about three slices of bacon) daily, the chance is seven out of 100.
Also, a diet high in antioxidants, like Vitamin C and certain other vitamins, can reduce the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines. So what you eat with your cured meats, matter.
The other side of processed meats is "what else is in them?"- fillers, "natural" and artificial flavors and coloring, and other chemical preservatives are in many of the commercial ones.
This is why we decided to make our own processed meats. While I am all about good nutrition and healthy eating, I'm also about MODERATION and BEST quality of food. Our hot dogs and beef sticks, for example, only use natural preservatives found in celery and cherry juice, and/or lactic acid. Made only with our grassfed beef, and spices, it's all 100% natural and has NO colors, fillers, or artificial anything. There is also much less preservatives in our cured meats, which is why we recommend to keep refrigerated or frozen until ready to eat, because they will spoil faster!
So, relax friends, enjoy that occasional charcuterie, delicious grilled hot dog with sauerkraut on top, or snack on that Starry Nights beef stick. Just don't forget a nice big salad on the side!
Marisa usually writes about nutrition, grass fed beef, organic agriculture, as well as sharing delicious recipes; Paul writes about farm work- sharing his stories and experiences, and most times... we both collaborate on the stories!