The deli meat in your turkey sandwich is the latest public-health villain.
New York City is eliminating processed meats from the meals it serves in public schools, hospitals and via other programs by 2025. The World Health Organization is coming up with recommended limits on processed meats. And U.S. agencies have set sodium-reduction goals for the products.
Behind the decisions is a growing body of research that links processed meats such as sliced ham, bacon and sausage to a range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and dementia. The findings have governments and many doctors pushing people to eat less processed meat and urging food companies to make healthier products. Processed meats are one of a number of foods—from sandwiches to chocolate milk—drawing scrutiny from doctors and nutritionists as Americans’ poor dietary habits contribute to a host of health problems.
“For decades, fathers and mothers have been sending children to school with low-fat chicken, turkey deli meat thinking they were doing good,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University who has studied the health risks of processed meats. “These foods are toxic.”
The science of processed meat
Scientists are finding that there is something especially harmful about processed meat, which includes meat that is cured, smoked or otherwise preserved. During curing, smoking and preserving, meats are typically loaded with sodium. One study found that levels of sodium in processed meats are about 400% higher than that of unprocessed meat.
Excess sodium increases blood pressure, which raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. Each serving a day of processed meat is associated with a 42% increased risk of heart disease and a 19% increased risk of diabetes, according to a review of research co-written by Dr. Mozaffarian and published in the journal Circulation in 2010. More recent research has found similar results.
Sales of processed meats are robust, says Chris DuBois, an executive vice president at market-research firm Circana. U.S. sales hit $29.4 billion in 2022, up from $22.9 billion in 2018, according to Circana data. Retail sales volume dipped less than 1% during that time. Mr. DuBois points to more people working and cooking from home, the popularity of protein foods and processed meats’ “taste and easy accessibility” as reasons for their popularity.
The World Health Organization plans to release new recommendations for limits on the consumption of processed meats by 2025, says Francesco Branca, director, department of nutrition and food safety at the WHO. In 2015, the organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated the cancer risk posed by processed meat and classified the foods as “carcinogenic to humans.” The agency said that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
In 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issued voluntary goals for food manufacturers—which will be in place until spring 2024—to reduce the sodium content in processed and packaged foods, including processed meats.
In New York’s mission to nix processed meats from the 230 million meals it serves a year, the city’s public schools are ahead of schedule, says Kate MacKenzie, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. The last “violator” food, a turkey breakfast sausage, will be out by the end of the current school year, she adds.
Problems with preservatives
Research has also linked nitrites, preservatives used to prevent the growth of bacteria and extend foods’ shelf life, to health risks, particularly colon cancer. Nitrites can create chemicals called N-nitroso compounds that can damage DNA and lead to cancer, says Robert J. Turesky, professor in the department of medicinal chemistry at the University of Minnesota.
These compounds may also explain the connection between consumption of processed meat and an increased risk of dementia, partly because the compounds can drive inflammation, according to the authors of a study published in 2021 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Some processed-meat products use natural forms of nitrates, often celery powder. They likely also have health risks, says Karen Collins, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Confusingly for consumers, products with celery powder or other forms of natural nitrates generally bear a label stating “No nitrates or nitrites added.” The fine print on the package often states “except for those naturally occurring in celery powder.”
The processed-meat industry says that nitrites are safe at the levels its companies use and that their products are “convenient sources of protein that are packed with key vitamins and minerals,” according to Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a trade group. Ms. Little says that meat companies also offer reduced-sodium products.
Some food makers, particularly in Europe, are launching processed meats without natural or inorganic nitrates or nitrites. Northern Ireland-based Finnebrogue, for example, sells “Naked Bacon,” which uses salt and other methods to preserve the bacon and a blend of fruit extracts to keep the meat looking pink. The company says it sold $35 million of Naked Bacon last year.
Dr. Mozaffarian at Tufts says that since the health risks of processed meats are largely created during manufacturing—the unprocessed turkey, pork and beef don’t have the same negative health impacts—the industry should be able to create healthier products.
Dr. Mozaffarian adds that he himself is a fan of the occasional BLT. “We should demand that the industry fix it so we can all eat bacon and hot dogs,” he says.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on May 16, 2023, and written by Andrea Petersen. Image courtesy of iStock.
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