The term processed meat often refers to meat which has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking or adding chemicals such as sodium nitrite. These preservatives which are not found in fresh meat are what make processed meat harmful.
Studies have shown that eating high amounts of processed meat over a long period may increase the risk of chronic illness such as heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension and cancer. This is mainly because of the presence of salt and other preservatives (nitrite compounds) used on processed meat. Although some processed meat may be unavoidable because of our type of daily diet, it is important that eating one serving per week or less will be associated with relatively small risk.
Sodium nitrite is a chemical found naturally in many vegetables, including spinach, lettuce, cauliflower and beets. It is also a common preservative and colouring agent in foods such as cured meats. Its effect as an addictive may be positive or negative, depending on the circumstance. The use of sodium nitrite includes;
- To preserve the red/pink colour of meat
- To reduce flavour in processed foods by suppressing the oxidation of fat. A process known as rancidification.
- To prevent the growth of bacteria, thus cutting the risk of food poisoning.
In processed meat, nitrite can turn to harmful nitrosamines. Research has also shown that processed meat is the main source of nitrosamines with other sources like tobacco smoke, contaminated drinking water and salted pickled foods. It is mainly formed when processed meat products are exposed to high heat such as during frying or grilling. In humans, nitrosamines have been proven to increase the risk of stomach and bowel cancer.
In addition, a high consumption of sodium nitrate inhibits oxygen transportation in the body. Your body relies on sufficient production of hemoglobin to ensure that all the internal systems get the necessary oxygen needed. High diet in sodium nitrites may lead to a health condition called methemoglobinemia, which is the inability of your red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout your body. This condition causes respiratory problems and can be fatal. Reducing your intake of foods with sodium nitrites can help prevent this condition.
Also, type 1 diabetes can occur in infants and young children when their pancreas does not have the ability to produce insulin. This can be a life-threatening condition if insulin levels are not monitored closely. High intake of sodium nitrites while pregnant may increase your baby’s risk of developing Type 1 diabetes. This risk is higher for male babies and occurs because of your body’s reaction to sodium nitrite.
Alternatives to Eating Processed Meat
There are varieties of healthy food which you can equally replace your processed meat with. Below are some foods that would not increase the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease.
- White-meat chicken: Sliced white-meat can substitute for your sandwich rather than buying it pre-packaged which may still have added preservatives. If you are the type of person that really enjoys buying foods off the shelf to eat. You can go for nitrate free products.
- Meat Free Foods: In the course of trying to avoid processed meat, you should take adequate precaution not withhold on the required amount of protein needed in your diet. Adding foods like lentils, beans, nuts, tofu and nut butters will provide the right amount of protein to substitute processed meat intake.
Processed meats are available in all forms in deli stores these days. One must be cautious on the amount of intake so as not to increase the risk of chronic disease in our later years. If possible, substituting for fresh meat by cooking/preparing it yourself is a good preventive measure.