The furor over processed meat, red meat and cancer

 Samuel Barnes

                                      Samuel Barnes

It would appear that the recommendations to avoid processed meat, which really translates into eating it on an occasional basis, rather than daily, has led to many expressing outrage.  Some believe that the guidelines say these foods must be banished completely and find the concept ridiculous.  And so they should.  Eating these foods once in a while  is not the issue. It’s the dose that makes the poison.

True, these foods don’t compare to tobacco or asbestos but it doesn’t mean the science should be ignored. And you also need to look at what else you’re eating through the day.  If chips, a hot dog and a sugar-filled cola is your daily lunch, as opposed to one with a lean unprocessed protein, vegetables, fruits and whole grains, then a revamping of your  menu would be a wise action.

People are also lumping the statements regarding processed meats together with red meat and this is simply incorrect.

Firstly, the processed meat issue. This is not new and has been years in the making as hundreds of studies have been conducted looking at the association.  For the World Health Organization (WHO) statement, scientists evaluated more than 800 studies to come up with their conclusions.

As for red meat, it was put in a completely different category. The WHO recommendations are to moderate its intake – to limit its consumption to 18 ounces a week. Again, this is not new and it’s certainly not a recommendation that everyone become a vegetarian. Meat does offer a variety of key nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.

But WHO is saying that a big hunk of steak on a regular basis is not the best for your health.

This is not a surprise and is a smart move for many reasons. If your meals relegate meat from a starring role to one where it’s a bit player, then you’ll also likely be consuming many other foods with an assortment of health benefits. Instead of just chili con carne with mainly meat, why not enjoy one where there are more kidney beans than beef? A beef and broccoli stir-fry containing onions, garlic and other vegetables will not only provide a moderate amount of meat but the rest of the ingredients can provide an arsenal of disease-fighting weaponry.

Having meatless meals as well offers the opportunity to include fish as well dishes based on options such as legumes like lentils, chick peas and kidney beans.

In addition, besides the health concerns, cutting down on meat also offers benefit to our environment, something which has been often left out of the discussion.

Another misconception I’ve heard over the past few days is about the processed meat contained in the Mediterranean diet – all the prosciutto and salami. While they may be consumed in copious amounts nowadays, this was simply not the case in the true Mediterranean diet. These products were preserved as meat was in short supply so people wanted to make it last. If a pig was slaughtered, it wasn’t eaten all at once – whole hog so to speak. No, only small amounts were consumed fresh and the rest preserved so that there would be meat at a later date.

Meat was a garnish in the true Mediterranean eating style.



As I mentioned in my last post, if deli meats, such as  deli turkey and deli oven roasted chicken and roast beef, are staples for brown bag lunches, here are some ideas for replacing processed meat on your menu:

•    Roast a turkey breast yourself. While I’ve often heard that the white meat of the turkey is not a favourite at holiday time (often the only time many people roast a bird), when you cook the breast alone, you can ensure that the meat is not overdone. Dry white meat is a frequent consequence of  cooking both dark and white meat together. A simple and tasty method is to rub the turkey with lemon, garlic, herbs such as rosemary, salt and pepper, and olive oil and then roast it in a preheated 500 °F oven for 15 minutes; then turn the heat down to 350 °F and cook for about another 45 – 50 minutes  (depending on the size of the breast) or until a thermometer  reaches 165°F in the thickest part of the breast.  Remove it from the oven and let it sit, tented with foil,  for 10 minutes before slicing. Slice up the breast and freeze in labelled portion-controlled packages so they’re ready for sandwiches or salads.

•    When cooking chicken, always cook extra. If you’re roasting a chicken, roast two or if you’re cooking up pieces, add extra. Freeze or refrigerate – again sliced and in labelled packages in the appropriate serving size.

•    Do the same with beef – cook extra and freeze.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Tips and Tricks

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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