Are some processed meats worse for you than others?

NEW YORK — Hot dogs and baseball games. Bacon and Sunday morning. Bratwurst and barbecues. American culture is steeped in joyous occasions featuring processed meats, but when that indulgence extends beyond the occasional celebration, experts say you should cut back.

“The evidence is quite compelling that regular consumption of processed meats is detrimental to health, including colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology. and director of the nutrition department at Harvard University. TH Chan School of Public Health. And, overall, he added, most health experts agree that “processed meats are more harmful than unprocessed meats.”

Processed meats can include ham, sausages, bacon, deli meats (like bologna, smoked turkey, and salami), hot dogs, jerky, pepperoni, and even sauces made with these products. When meat is processed, it is transformed by drying, fermenting, smoking, or salting in order to increase flavor and shelf life.

In 2015, the World Health Organization announced that processed meat was “carcinogenic to humans”, citing “sufficient evidence” that it caused colorectal cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund International recommends eating little to no processed meat and limiting red meat to about three servings (or about 340 to 510 ounces) per week.

It is important to limit the consumption of red meat – most commonly beef and pork in the United States – even when it is unprocessed, as it is linked not only to cancer, but also to heart disease, strokes and an overall risk of death. (In its 2015 announcement on processed meats, the WHO classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic.”)

Experts cannot definitively recommend one type of processed meat over another due to the way research is currently conducted.

“Most of the studies focus on highly consumed processed meats: hot dogs, bacon, sausages,” Dr. Hu said. So because all types of processed meats are lumped together in most studies, he added, “it’s hard to make a conclusive statement about which processed meats are better or worse than others.” And, he noted, people who tend to eat one type of processed meat tend to eat others, so it’s hard to disentangle the effect of one on the other.

“Theoretically, you can argue that processed poultry and fish aren’t as bad as processed red meat,” Dr Hu said, citing the low saturated fat content of poultry and fish and the abundance of omega-3 fatty acids in certain types of fish.

“But we don’t have any evidence to back that up,” he said, so until more research is done, treat processed poultry and fish products with the same caution.

The main problem appears to be the processing itself, rather than the composition of the processed meat, said Marji McCullough, senior scientific director of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society. Curing or preserving with nitrates and nitrites, which can create cancer-causing chemicals in foods, could contribute to cancer risk, McCullough said.

Another possible variable, she added, is that cooking meat at high temperatures can form additional carcinogens. This includes cooking meat in direct contact with a flame or hot surface, such as when barbecuing, grilling or frying.

Besides cancer risks, all processed meats tend to be high in sodium, so that’s “an important factor,” Dr. Hu said. Excessive sodium intake can increase the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Processed meats have also been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and dementia. A large 2021 study in Britain, for example, concluded that for every additional 25 grams of processed meat in a person’s daily diet, the risk of dementia increased by 44% and that of the disease. Alzheimer’s increased by 52%.

Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, assistant professor of medicine at UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition, said the concern about processed meat is that it can increase inflammation in the body, in part by altering the microbiome of the body. intestine.

“Gut bacteria interact with our immune system and eventually lead to chronic inflammation,” she said, which can affect blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, increasing the risk of chronic disease and even death.

“A plant-based diet will be much more preventative in reducing risk,” Dr. Surampudi said.

“That doesn’t mean you have to go 100% vegan or vegetarian,” she said, just that the majority of your diet should come from plant sources.

This way of eating is also generally better for the environment.

So, does that mean it’s better to eat plant-based processed meat alternatives?

“Potentially, processed meat alternatives are better than processed meats, but not all processed meat alternatives are created equal,” Dr. Hu said. In the end, it depends on the composition of the products – whether they are completely herbal analogues or products made from a mixture of meat and vegetables. But, he added, “of course, a more optimal diet should be based on minimally processed plant-based foods.”

What about products labeled “no added nitrates or nitrites”? Nitrate-free meats can use ingredients like celery juice, a natural nitrate, but it’s unclear whether these are healthier than those made with synthetic nitrates or nitrites.

For products with labels such as ‘organic’, ‘antibiotic-free’, ‘fed on a vegetarian diet’ or ‘humanely raised’, Dr Surampudi said: ‘I think if people can choose lean cuts, organic and vegetarian food – if you can afford it – is better, because whatever animal you eat, it gets concentrated in that animal’s body, and then we eat it. This is an important factor to consider with all animal foods, processed or unprocessed.

Ultimately, the processed meats that are the worst for you are the ones you might find yourself eating regularly, rather than as an occasional treat. Which means: once in a while, at a baseball game or a family barbecue, for example, go there and have a hot dog. Don’t make it a habit.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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