The latest article published in the Lancet journal accompanying new information released from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regarding the carcinogenic effects of processed meats is making big headlines. Processed meats have now been given a category 1 rating, meaning they are classified as ‘definitely cause cancer’. Red meats have been classified as category 2, deaming them as ‘probably carcinogenic’.
As a nutritionist and also someone that includes certain cured meats in my diet, I think it is vitally important to break this information down to reduce confusion, fear and scare mongering online.
Saying processed meats cause cancer is simply not that black and white. The main component that can increase cancer risk in processed meats is nitrates. Nitrates are an artificial compound that are added to processed meats (and other processed foods) to maintain shelf life, impart a smoky flavour and give that red/pink colour we associate with ham and salami.
The thing is, not all processed meats are made the same. For hundreds of years Italians have been making and eating processed/cured meats such as prosciutto, bresaola and salami in the traditional ways of curing. Ingredients are simple; pork and salt or beef and salt, perhaps a few herbs and spices. There are no added fillers, chemicals and in particular nitrates. Additionally, Italy has the worlds second longest living community of human beings, heavily attributed to their dietary intake.
Secondly, and most importantly, it’s also about how these cured meats are included in ones diet. The latest media releases discuss processed meats, alongside red meats as a potential causative factor in cancer. When we look at an average western diet, someone eating a high intake of red meats and processed meats is going to generally be consuming less fiber dense grains, poor vegetable intake and less quality fats. We have to consider the entirety of the diet and how it as a whole contributes to cancer and degenerative disease. A lack of anti inflammatory foods, poor antioxidant intake and fiber in the diet are without question compounding factors that will increase ones chances for disease.
Where as, if quality cured meats are included as part of a balanced wholefood diet we then have a different story. Again, consider the Italians who take pride in cooking their meals from scratch with ample fresh produce, quality fats and a variety of grains (it’s not all pasta people). Rockmelon wrapped in prosciutto, homemade sausages tossed through braises with garden herbs, bresaola drizzled with olive oil. It’s a world apart from how we use cured meats here is Australia.
There is also discussion about other elements within red meats being potentially problematic. For instance, heam (a breakdown product of haemoglobin) may cause gut aggravation and enhanced cell turnover leading to a more precarious environment for possible adverse cell development, however for me this highlights the importance of a healthy gut and overall quality of health. Gut bacteria has also been mentioned and studied in regards to playing an important role, again highlighting gut health significance.
I strongly believe that if you enjoy quality cured meats as part of a wholefood balanced diet then you are not putting yourself at a higher risk of cancer. Personally I love prosciutto with my eggs once-twice a week and my local deli’s fennel sausages through my homemade pesto pasta. I’m not consuming these as the dominant portion of my meals, and my meals are balanced with an array of macronutrients and fresh produce.
Lastly, these quality cured meats are not as hard as you may think they are to find. Ask at your local deli or supermarket! Check ingredients! Get friendly with your local butcher and see what he can order you. You’ll be amazed at what you may find.
Jessica Cox is a qualified practicing Nutritionist with a Bachelor Health Science (Nutrition) and over 15 years of clinical experience. She is the founder and director JCN Clinic, published author and established recipe developer. Jessica is well respected within health and wellness space for her no fad approach and use of evidence-based nutrition.