Hold the Hot Dog! Are Processed Meats Really That Bad?


Last fall, meat eaters got a big scare. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released findings that eating red meat and, more specifically, processed meat can raise your risk for cancer. People who line up at grab-and-go hot dog stands were alarmed. Bacon lovers were defensive. But the message is clear: Processed meats really aren’t good for you. That said, you can still enjoy that chili-cheese dog without the fear factor, if you keep a few things in mind.

How Bad Is Processed Meat?

Let’s start with what constitutes “processed meat.” The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) defines it as meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, fermenting, salting, or adding preservatives. Think ham, bacon, salami, pastrami, hot dogs, beef jerky, and some sausages (not all—fresh sausages are the exception). Processed meats are worse than red meat alone as far as causing cancer. A type of iron in red meat (heme iron, versus non-heme iron found in plant foods) has been linked with an increased risk, while processed meats are considered causative. With processed meats, it’s suspected that using nitrites as preservatives is the culprit, as enzymes found in the meats convert them into carcinogenic compounds. In both cases, however, the more meat on your plate daily, the greater your cancer risk.

Knowing it’s a probability game, it’s also good to know that your risk of developing cancer from eating processed meat is still quite small. The risk is specific to colorectal cancer. Overall, men have a 4.7 and women a 4.4 percent chance of developing colorectal cancer in their lifetime. The IARC reports that if you eat 50 grams (about 2 ounces) of processed meat every day, your risk increases by about 18 percent. So, yes, eating processed meat moves the needle a percentage point or two, but not as significantly when compared with other carcinogens, like cigarettes. (Smoking increases your risk of developing lung cancer by 1,900 percent!) Still, it’s important to recognize that eating salty meat isn’t good for anyone, and it’s a completely controllable risk factor.

And of course, there are many other variables—including your weight, activity level, and family history, but not least, the quality of your total diet. According to Elisa V. Bandera, MD, PhD, cancer researcher, and panelist for the WCRF, “If you eat a poor diet in general, including lots of processed meat, your risk of cancer increases further.”

How Much Is Too Much?

The broad recommendation is to limit the amount of red meat you eat. Specifically, the WCRF says to eat less than 500 grams (a little over a pound) of cooked red meat per week, and little to none of that should be processed. That’s about 70 grams—2½ ounces—of red meat per day. That’s it! Hardly enough for a satisfying steak. A more realistic way to think about the recommendation is to eat two or three servings of red meat per week, and vary your protein choices at other meals by including more poultry, fish, eggs, and legumes.

But back to bacon, dogs, and other tasty processed meats—since nutrition scientists are probably going to tell you to avoid them entirely, the decision to indulge is yours. Bandera recommends, “If you must eat bacon, don’t do it every day, eat only a little of it, and accompany it with lots of fruits and vegetables.” It’s best to look for healthier options for your daily go-to’s, such as lean and nitrate-free meats, like pork, and chicken and seafood that can be spiced up with a variety of herbs, rubs, and marinades. That way you can enjoy your truly occasional ballpark franks or summertime sausages guilt-free.

Bottom Line On Bringing Home the Bacon

The message here is consistent with heart-healthy messages you’ve been hearing for the past several decades. It’s a good idea to lower your total red meat consumption and even eliminate processed meats. But before you say “bye-bye, bacon!” or “so long, salami,” take a look at your total diet. Are your protein sources pretty lean and well balanced with fresh, whole fruits and vegetables and plenty of dietary fiber from whole grains and legumes? If so, you’re probably okay with leaving a little room for salty, savory meats once in a while. It all depends how often do you eat them, and in what amount—so if you eat well this week, you can still look forward to that weekend barbecue. Make a conscious choice to savor processed meat only on special occasions and in smaller portions, so when you bring home the bacon, you can enjoy it, too!

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