What counts as processed meat (and why eating a hot dog won’t kill you)

Debbie asks: “What’s the definition of processed meat? Everyone seems to agree that we should avoid it. But I’m never sure what counts. Hot dogs and bologna seem obvious. Is sausage considered processed? What about sliced lunch meat at the deli?”

Researchers have found that people who eat the most processed and/or cured meats have higher risk of things like heart disease and cancer. Naturally, people who pay attention to these sort of things want to know which meats are on the “bad” list.

Unfortunately, there is no single definition–and the validity of the association between processed meat and disease risk has a lot to do with what’s included. In some studies and surveys, processed meat is any meat that has been cured, smoked, dried, or had anything added to it, including salt, seasonings, or preservatives. Other studies have a separate category for cured meats.

So, what exactly are we supposed to avoid? Pepperoni seems pretty obvious. But what about smoked salmon or uncured bacon? Is a package of sliced turkey breast off limits? 

The problem with cured meats

A lot of the angst about processed meat has to do with the nitrites and nitrates in cured meats. As I explained in this podcast episode, nitrates and nitrites can be converted into carcinogens in the digestive tract. But eating plenty of fruits and vegetables with your cured meat protects you against this effect.

See also: Do Nitrites Cause Cancer?

There’s also a dose effect that usually gets overlooked.  The only people who have an elevated risk of disease are the folks who are eating LOTS of cured and processed meats. People who only eat these things occasionally do not suffer ill effects.

Eating a hot dog won’t kill you

Rather than trying to rank every possible meat product on a scale from the least evil to the most virtuous, perhaps it’s saner to think about this is the way I’ve come to think about grains:

If you eat very little in the way of grain-based foods (0-2 servings per day), it doesn’t ,matter nearly as much that you always choose whole grains. And if you’re eating excessive amounts of grain-based foods, the fact that some or all of them are whole grains isn’t going to save you. See also: The Truth About Whole Grains

By the same token, if you’re only eating meat once or twice a month and you want to have bacon or pepperoni, I don’t see a lot of harm. (Just be sure to eat your veggies!)

However, even if you’re choosing the “cleanest” type of meat,  eating it twice a day every day is probably too much.


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