Sound the Alarm!!! or maybe not?
If you’re up on the recent news you’ve probably read something about new studies linking meat consumption to cancer. This has been presented as pretty alarming news right? Suddenly you are told that you need to eliminate meat and processed meat from your diet…Roasted or Grilled meats, Luncheon or Deli meats, bacon, sausage, beef jerky, canned meat… Is it a true alarm and should you eliminate meat or a false alarm and not really necessary?
What is it about meat that causes the cancer link?
Our Soma Science℠ Team has drilled down a bit into the real data, not just the hyped up parts picked up by the media. As with all things there is some truth and reason to be cautious, but you can control your risk to what we believe is a pretty reasonable level.
Processed and cured meats can have chemical compounds added that kill pathogens and harmful bacteria. As you can imagine, this is a really a good idea to create a safe food supply. However, we have now learned that the chemicals that are used to protect us from harmful bacteria in these meats can change with the elevated temperatures encountered during cooking or processing. Also the acids in your stomach can cause them to change. In both cases these changes alter the compounds into forms that are carcinogenic. The main added chemicals that are the problem are compounds called nitrites and nitrates. These are transformed into potent carcinogens called nitrosamines. These then can impact the cells in your digestive system and are the leading cause of colon cancer.
Another mechanism in elevating cancer risk is the temperature that fresh, unprocessed meats are cooked. That attractive blackened charr on broiled, grilled or blackened meats it turns out, is not so healthy. Cooking at high temperatures such as barbecuing on the grill to the point of creating a charred exterior, can also create carcinogenic compounds. That lovely caramelized browning reaction called the Maillard Reaction seems ok when light brown but get it to be dark and blackened and the proteins that make up the meat have now changed. The downside to the Maillard reaction is that cooking too darkly produces cancer-causing substances, like acrylamide and furans.
What is processed meat?
You may be wondering what exactly “processed meat” is? Well, according to the World Health Organization, processed meat refers to “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” This includes until recently, most bacon, canned meat, beef jerky, luncheon and deli meats, sausage, hot dogs, salami and meat based sauces.
How much increases my risk for cancer?
Based on a recent study performed by the WHO, a person who eats 50 grams per day of processed meat has an 18 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, 50 grams per day would be on par with two slices of deli ham. Two slices of bacon is about 75 grams and a hot dog about 100 grams.
It remains challenging for researchers to tease out the increased risk of cancer that comes from the high temperature oxidation of any meat that has been blackened or charred, be it fish, pork, fowl, or steer, to that for people who eat meat that is lightly browned and cooked at low temperature. We know it is a risk, but we do not know not at what level.
The last part of the risk is that 7-10% of the general population has elevated transferrin levels (iron levels in their body). When this genetic predisposition is combined with higher dietary iron intake that can come from red meats or supplements, there is an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
Healthy Options to Start Now!
There is good news in this story and it has to do with limiting your processed meats to “uncured” meat. That is meat with no added nitrite or nitrate preservatives, which greatly decreases the risk of developing cancer vs. the cured meat. This is becoming more and more widely available. Applegate, Boars Head, Thin and Trim are some of the main brands that offer these uncured meats (lunch meat, sausage, bacon etc). The other thing to remember is that moderation helps. Your goal would be to minimize your consumption of processed meats that use nitrates and nitrites to an average of significantly less than 50 grams/day.
As far as cooking temperatures, we do know that lightly browned and low temperature cooked meats pose less risk due to the lack of the production of cancer causing compounds by the high temperature. We recommend you make a change to minimize the color you achieve on your meats. Also as a method to slow cook consider braising, crock pot or Sous-vide cooking.
Take away message:
So next time you take a trip to the grocery store keep your eyes open for packaging that says “uncured”. You may notice the higher price but keep in mind how it is benefiting your health in the long term. Making the choice to buy that product instead of a nitrate or nitrite preserved product you will be making a substantial improvement in your health.
If you live a life of moderation, Well Effect style, you will be the healthiest version of yourself!
Emily Dallos, Soma Science℠ Instructor
IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. World Health Organization. 26 Oct 2015. http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
Processed meats do cause cancer-WHO. Gallagher, James. 26 October 2015. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34615621
100 years ago, Malliard Taught Us Why our Food Tastes Better Cooked. Palca, Joe. 26 Nov 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/10/10/162636059/100-years-ago-maillard-taught-us-why-our-food-tastes-better-cooked
Turning Down the Heat when Cooking Meat May Reduce Cancer Risk. Aubrey, Allison. 23 Nov 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/11/23/456654768/turning-down-the-heat-when-cooking-meat-may-reduce-cancer-risk
Bad Day for Bacon. Processed red Meats Cause Cancer Says WHO. Aubrey, Allison. 29 Oct 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/26/451211964/bad-day-for-bacon-processed-red-meats-cause-cancer-says-who
Transferrin Saturation, Dietary Iron Intake, and Risk of Cancer. Arch G. Mainous III, PhD; James M. Gill, MD, MPH; Charles J. Everett, PhD Disclosures; Ann Fam Med. 2005;3(2):131-137. Annals of Family Medicine