I am sure that you would agree that it has been difficult to ignore the headlines this week about processed meat and the potential risk of heart disease and cancer. I do not think this is actually breaking news because many of us have known for years that anything processed will most probably have negative health implications. In fact in 2007 The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) produced a huge study that recommended shunning processed meat completely, much to the outrage of the meat industry, but this new report has perhaps wakened our awareness.
What did the report say?
The report was published in the British Medical Journal on March 7th. If I quote directly from the study, it claims that:
The Aim was to ‘examine the association of red meat, processed meat and poultry consumption with the risk of early death in European Prospective Investigation (EPIC) in to cancer and nutrition’. 448,568 men and women between the ages of 35 and 69 were studied.
The results concluded that a higher consumption of red meat was related to higher all cause mortality and the association was stronger for processed meat. After further refinement all cause mortality remained significant only for processed meat. Poultry was not related to mortality.
The conclusion showed ‘The results of our analysis supported a moderate association between processed meat consumption and mortality in particular coronary heart disease and cancer’.
It is understood that the participants in general had other factors that were contributing to this, some smoked, did little exercise and ate little fresh fruits and vegetables. That aside the consensus seems that there is an 11% risk for developing cancer and a 44% risk of developing heart disease if you eat processed meat products.
The Food Standards agency recommended that a safe limit was 20g a day which is equivalent to one rasher of bacon!!!! Hardly make a bacon butty will it!!!
According to Catherine Collins, principal dietician at St. George’s Hospital London, the average consumption is only 37g which she feel is nothing to be concerned about but other research suggests that 100g is nearer the norm and for those who consume 150g a day there is a definite risk. There are many more opinions from people like Victoria Taylor a senior dietician of the British Heart Foundation and Dr. Rachel Thompson from the WCRF all quoting different safe levels.
Whichever way you look at this it does not make very good reading does it.
Why processed meat can pose such a health risk.
Many of us know that processed meat contains various preservatives and additives. Typical preservatives are the Sodium Nitrates which are chemical additives to prolong the shelf life and can be used to fix the colour of the meat so that the meat looks a fresh red colour. They very cleverly disguise inferior meat scrapings from the carcass of the animals making them look appetising. At one time the USA tried to ban sodium nitrate because there is evidence to suggest that it can be extremely harmful to many of our internal organs such as our pancreas and liver. The food manufactures argued that there was no other alternative for preserving meat that was packaged which seems a bit alarming to me.
Mono sodium Glutamate (MSG) is another chemical used in meat processing as a flavour enhancer. This has been shown to cause neurological problems such as Parkinson’s, alzheimer’s and migraines. It has also been associated to contributing to obesity and infertility.
Processed meat is also very high in saturated fat which contains a lot of cholesterol. Cholesterol in itself is essential as our hormones and made from cholesterol and we produce it ourselves naturally in the liver, but it is when it gets too much that problems start. Hence the great interest from the British Heart Foundation.
From a naturopathic point of view any chemicals or unnatural toxins that we consume actually interferes with the natural functioning of the cell and if our cells cannot function properly then it can create problems with metabolism, excretion of waste and absorption of nutrients. Obviously this is very undesirable and it is not difficult to see how this can contribute to the development of chronic disease including cancer because after all cancer is basically cells not performing properly. Interestingly our cells still function as they did in the stone age, They have not adapted through evolution to keep up with the food industry that is why all of the diets and recommendations that you see about cancer and eating focus very much on the natural whole foods with as little processing as possible. I know that it is difficult to avoid all processed food because at times convenience and speed is essential, and we all succumb occasionally as we are human. But reducing the amount we use may be to our advantage.
Even ‘fresh’ meats including beef, chicken and pork are not exempt, they can test positive for steroids and hormones. This is because many animals are given growth hormones and steroids to increase their meat production which makes it practically impossible to avoid any form of food contamination. Several studies have been conducted in association between hormones and steroids in our meat supply and the increased growth rate of our children. Interesting! There is also a lot of research on the way that fresh meat is cooked and how this too can have health implications I will be looking at this in detail next week.
The bottom line
So where does this leave us. Is it time to cut out processed meat completely? According to the Guardian newspaper who ran a feature on the report, some experts and health campaigners admit that only the fear of being seen as completely out of touch prevents them from agreeing publicly with the WCRF who say that it should be cut out completely. They preach moderation not abstinence, for pragmatic reasons. But all the while the evidence against processed meats seems to be stacking up.