What Is Processed Meat and Is It Bad for Your Health?
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Processed meat, such as hot dogs, can contain chemical preservatives known to have harmful health effects. Here's what experts want you to know.
What is processed meat?
Processed meat is as American as baseball, a game where, incidentally, you’ll usually find processed hot dogs draped in cheese sauce (also processed).
“Processed red meat differs from fresh red meat in that it’s been cured, salted, smoked, canned, or treated with preservatives,” says Lisa Andrews, a registered dietitian and owner of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati.
Along with hot dogs, processed meat includes bacon, sausage, bologna, corned beef, salami, ham, and beef jerky. Yup, your beloved bacon is processed, and so is pepperoni and packaged deli meat.
On the other hand, fresh beef or steak—or even fresh lamb—is not considered processed.
“Ground beef and pork are not actually considered processed as long as they haven’t been subjected to additives or alterations,” says Andrea Goergen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Cultivate Healthy in Washington, D.C.
If you love burgers, you should know that they’re not considered processed meat either.
“Hamburger meat is not considered processed,” says Lacey Dunn, a registered dietitian and author of The Women’s Guide to Hormonal Harmony. “Though it has been altered from its original shape and form, it has not had additional preservatives or nitrates added to it.”
(Try these vegan burgers everyone will love.)
How processed meat is made
You might not want to know how some of your favorite processed meats are made. (Trust us, it gets gross.)
Most hot dogs, for example, are made from mechanically separated meat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this is a “paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue.”
Essentially, your hot dog is skeletal meat that is ground up to a fine texture and combined with salt and water so everything sticks together. Yum.
Nitrates, processed meat, and your health
Among the chemical preservatives often added to processed meats are nitrates and nitrites. But nitrates also occur naturally. This can be a bit confusing, so let’s discuss.
“Nitrates are also found naturally in some vegetables such as arugula, cabbage, celery, kale, and spinach,” says Andrews. “Vegetables are protective against cancer and should be encouraged in everyone’s diets.”
As we digest our food, nitrates are converted into nitrites.
While naturally occurring nitrates aren’t a cause for concern, nitrates and nitrites that are added to processed red meat are.
“Nitrites are preservatives that produce potential cancer-causing compounds, particularly [for] colorectal cancers,” says Goergen.
(These are the signs you’re eating too many food additives.)
How much processed meat can you have?
The fact that the American Institute for Cancer Research has a recommendation to eat little, if any, processed red meat is a red flag on its own.
But the guidelines also recommend limiting red meat intake—even if it hasn’t been processed—to no more than three portions. That’s a total of 12 to 18 ounces of cooked meat per week.
“Less is best,” advises Andrews. “Processed meats contain nitrates, which have been linked with several types of cancer, including esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers.”
Recent news from the USDA talks about potential updates to labeling regulations for foods containing nitrates and nitrites.
The more processed and unprocessed red meat you eat, the larger a health risk you may have.
In a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that people eating the highest amounts of processed meat had a 22 percent increased risk of death from any cause and an 18 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease during the study.
Unprocessed red meat intake was associated with a 16 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Worth noting: there was no increased risk of death linked to intake of white meat, such as chicken.
How processed red meat can be harmful
In addition to containing preservatives like nitrates and nitrites, processed red meat is often cured with salt, making it high in sodium.
“This is associated with hypertension, and consumption of processed red meat also has a link with diabetes,” says Andrews, citing a 2019 study published in BMJ.
High-sodium foods are especially problematic for anyone with heart or kidney conditions, says Goergen.
“For instance, three ounces of steak may have 48 milligrams of sodium, while three slices of bacon may have over 400 milligrams,” she says. “If the general recommendation for sodium intake is 2,300 milligrams per day for people without cardiovascular or kidney conditions—it is far less in those cases—400 milligrams is 17 percent of your daily maximum recommended intake.”
Another risk? A March study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that processed red meat consumption could be a risk factor for dementia.
“The retrospective study of over 490,000 adults found that intake of processed meats of more than five servings per week was linked with a 67 percent higher risk for dementia compared to those who ate these meats less than once a week,” says Andrews.
Plus, processed red meat tends to be higher in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. “This can play a role in increasing body fat, blood pressure, and inflammation levels,” says Dunn.
How to reduce your risk
Aim to have meals or even days without meat, whether that means going completely plant-based for those eating occasions or adding in proteins such as eggs, fish, chicken, and turkey.
Also try plant proteins, such as beans, edamame, tofu, and even veggie burgers.
“My personal favorite is a portobello mushroom black bean burger that is so tasty and filling, I don’t even miss the beef,” says Goergen.
Health experts agree that processed red meat should be eaten in moderation, so try to limit it to rare occasions only.
“The dose makes the poison, as does the overall quality of your diet and your lifestyle choices,” says Dunn. “A hot dog or breakfast bacon meal here and there is not a large case for concern if your overall diet is healthy and filled with a variety of micronutrients and color.”
Next, check out these nutritionist-approved meat substitutes.
- Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "What is Mechanically Separated Meat?"
- Andrea Goergen, MHS, RDN, owner of Cultivate Healthy in Washington, D.C.
- Lacey Dunn, MS, RD, CPT, registered dietitian and author of The Women's Guide to Hormonal Harmony
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Limit red and processed meat"
- Food & Beverage Insider: "USDA plans to change ‘no nitrate or nitrite added’ regulations"
- Michigan State University: "Preservatives: Exploring nitrate & nitrite safety"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Association between total, processed, red and white meat consumption and all-cause, CVD and IHD mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies"
- BMJ: "Role of diet in type 2 diabetes incidence: umbrella review of meta-analyses of prospective observational studies"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Meat consumption and risk of incident dementia: cohort study of 493,888 UK Biobank participants"