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Processed meats make global news once again. A new study published in the journal BMC Medicine concluded that diets that are high in processed meats would increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Researchers said that the salt and chemicals used in preserving sausages, ham, bacon and other processed meats increased the risk of dying young in a study that included over a half of million otherwise healthy people in 10 European countries.
The British Journal of Cancer (BJC) recently found processed meats to increase the risk of pancreatic cancer by 38 percent as well. The data was gathered from 11 clinical trials and over 6,000 pancreatic cancer patients. Pancreatic cancer is one of the types of cancers that boast the highest mortality rate amongst all cancers.
Lifestyle dictates health outcomes
In total, one in every 17 people in the study died prematurely. The statistics show that 5,500 died from heart disease and nearly 10,000 from cancer. People that were found to eat more than 160g of processed meat a day was 44 percent more likely to die than those eating just 20g.
The use of preserving agents such as nitrites was found to be the link in the production of cancer in the BJC research. These agents have been known to be severe carcinogens for many years. Despite numerous scientific studies confirming the link, processed meats have suspiciously stayed on the market.
Researchers also looked at other lifestyle related factors such as smoking, obesity and other behaviors that are known to damage health. Processed meat was found to conclusively damage one’s health even after those risk factors were accounted for. Interestingly, people who ate a lot of processed meat were also more likely to smoke, be obese, be physically inactive and have other questionable dietary habits.
However, quitting smoking is still considered to be the most important lifestyle choice to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and early death.
What are processed meats?
Not all meat is bad. Any meat that has anything done to it to extend its shelf life, or to change its color or taste, or to make it more palatable in any way is considered processed.
The methods used for processing meats include preserving, canning, freezing, refrigeration, and dehydration. Many processed meats are made with unhealthy nitrates, nitrites, trans-fats, saturated fats and large amounts of sodium and sugar. By far, the most common form of processing is salting or curing.
Read the fine print
The best way to determine if a meat is processed or not is understand the food label. One of the most harmful chemicals is sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite can be used alone or in conjunction with sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meats and poultry products. The food industry adds this to preserve the red coloring in their meats.
Monosodium glutamate or MSG is a popular but very unhealthy flavor enhancer in many foods and marinades. Marinades also contain emulsifiers, texturizers, stabilizers and thickeners. These are used to maintain uniform texture and consistency in products.
For most people, there’s no need to cut back on fresh, healthy meats but on the processed, unhealthy convenience meats. People need to focus and understand the negative impacts of how meat is processed, what preservatives were used and what the salt content is. Your choices impact your health outcomes.
Dr Cory Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global health care education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
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