There has been so much talk about red meat over the last few years. The guidelines from the WHO told us not to eat too much red meat and showed the link between red meat and colorectal cancer. This risk was higher with processed red meat. Today it’s been more news about processed meat causing cancer, so as a population we are still eating our bacon it seems.
The problem this time is nitrates (NO3) and nitrites (NO2). These are often added to processed meats as they help it keep its pink colour and are important in food safety – protecting against botulism. Nitrates are metabolised to nitrites in the body, these are all fine until they combine with protein to form Nitrosamines. These can be carcinogenic. There lies the problem.
However nitrates themselves can be beneficial, they can relax blood vessels, being beneficial for blood pressure. They can improve the blood flow to muscles in exercise and they are a cofactor for reactions in the body.
Nitrates are found in processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami and chorizo. Interestingly they don’t seem to be added into UK made sausages, which is a slight win. They are also found added into higher amounts in smoked fish, cured fish and beer (especially German beer). The levels in your piece of ham are small. Nitrates are also found in vegetables however these naturally occuring forms do not appear to react in the body in the same way as those added into meats.
The take home – eating less meat is a good thing for the planet and for our bodies, but there is no need to cut it out entirely. In my opinion cutting things out is generally not a helpful approach. Processed meat is not something to be eating daily but it is ok to eat it occasionally. You can find some processed meats now that are nitrate free, check the labels nitrate/nitrites, but remember that does not mean you can eat it regularly. As a population we all should be eating less meat and more plant based proteins when we can. So keep that bacon sandwich for a now and again brekkie.