Processed meats are a staple to the everyday diet of many. From your favorite hot dog at a sporting event to a slice of Italian proscuitto on an antipasto platter, these flavorful and versatile meats are popular, but can have some drawbacks. Despite this popularity and the flavor, there are ingredients in many processed meat products that are unhealthy and can lead to health problems in the body if consumed on a regular basis.
Since the 16th century, processed meats have been produced by the kings of the meat industry and introduced to individuals as culinary delicacies. Also called emulsified meats, these products such as frankfurters, hotdogs, and bologna are made from meat that is entirely or partly disrupted in the presence of water, salt, and other processing aids, such as phosphates, citrates, carbohydrates, non meat proteins, and seasonings (Hoogenkamp 99). This also includes varieties of sausages, cured meats, and luncheon meats from all over the world that are being consumed, as well as cooked, by individuals in numerous ways. Despite the great flavor and versatility that these in the processed meat category possess, they all contain ingredients that are unhealthy. If consumed in large quantities, processed meats can result in being detrimental to the health of the human body.
When it comes to meat, Americans are its biggest fan. The average American eats more than 200 pounds of meat a year; 32 pounds of that being processed meats such as bacon, sausage, ham, and hotdogs (Barnard). As the saying goes, too much of something isn’t always a good thing and the saying holds true for eating processed meats. Total meat and processed meat consumption were directly related to the risk of weight gain, diabetes, and some cancers such as stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, lung, breast, prostate, testis, kidney, bladder, and leukemia (Jinfu Hu, et al).
In a May 2008 article of USA Today entitled Meat’s Striking Out, nutrition researcher Neal Barnard discusses how Americans are greedy when it comes to meat yet are very naïve to the fact that consuming large amounts of it can damage the body. In 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research told Americans that processed meats are a clear cut cause of colon cancer. A person who eats 1.7 ounces of processed meats daily(that’s about the size of one hot dog) has about a 20 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer, compared to people who do not (Barnard). This number will increase depending on the amounts of processed meats are eaten daily. In the 2007 report that was released by the World Cancer Research Fund, a hint was dropped to avoid processed meat as a result of the convincing evidence for an association with an increased risk of colorectal cancer development (Demeyer, Honikel, and Smet). As for diabetes, people who consumed any processed meats were 38 percent more likely to develop diabetes (Vang et al).
With all of these convincing evidence connecting health problems to processed meats, Americans ignore it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans have about an 18 percent probability of developing cancer before age 65 (Barnard). Alarming as that may sound; Americans are still devouring their share of hotdogs, bologna, and sausage. Blaming Americans for their ignorance may be all well and good, but if they were informed of which ingredients that are put into processed meat are unhealthy, they might comply with the risks and concerns.
To make many of the processed meats that we enjoy flavorful, eye appealing, and shelf stable, manufacturers add many ingredients other than the meat itself. Salt is one of the most commonly used ingredients that is added to processed meats (Hoogenkamp 161). In processed meats, salt provides flavor and functionality as well as enhances food safety (Food and Technology). Salt is also a provider of firmness in processed meats. In such processed meats such as the ever so popular Spam, salt also acts as a preservative (Wyman). While this is an important ingredient, it is also a health concern. In the October 2006 issue of Natural Health, an article entitled Salt Shake-Up discussed the issues with high salt intake in a person’s diet. The article reports that most of the people in the U.S. consume 4,000 to 6000 ml of salt everyday. This large amount of salt consumption has been linked to high blood pressure (C.R.).
Another preservative that are added to processed meat products are nitrites. Nitrites have a unique role in cured meat products. In 1907, sodium nitrite became a popular additive (Hoogenkamp 40). Sodium nitrite is commonly added to bacon, sausage, ham, hotdogs, and luncheon meats to inhibit bacterial growth of bacteria growth of bacteria that causes botulism (“Should you be wary of nitrites?). Whole muscle meats such as cooked ham and pastrami usually contain 125-250 ppm nitrites to obtain characteristic color properties (Hoogenkamp 164). In order for nitrite to be able to give the processed meat product its unique pink-ish color, it needs to go through a chemical reaction. Nitrite itself does not react with the meat, but needs to be reduced to nitrous oxide in order to be reactive. It partially reacts with myglobin and haemoglobin to form nitrosomyoglobin (Hoogenkemp 164).
There have been studies that link this reaction to lung damage (Raphaelle et al). Also, studies have linked it to certain cancers. For some reason, the government has taken an interesting turn on this. The government has deemed the risk of death from botulism to be so much greater than the risk of nitrates pose for cancer that it approves their use (Wyman). Interesting enough, there are some people that say that nitrates are beneficial in contrast to them being harmful. There is an indication that sodium nitrite is more like a therapy than a toxicant. Studies show a decline of cancerous tumors in some organ systems with increasing doses of sodium nitrite (Hoogenkamp 165).
Fat is an ingredient that is also important to think about when one eats processed meats. Current dietary habits in the United States show a daily intake of fats that exceed the recommended level. This high intake is due to both the consumption of fats and the hidden fats in foods (Eaton and Rouslin 72). In the case of bologna, 2 ounces has 15g of fat (Eaton and Rouslin 73). High fat meat products translate into high quality. The world’s best selling pork breakfast sausage at fast food restaurants has a fat content of over 30 percent with well over 80 percent of calories coming from fat. (Hoogenkamp 106). The thoughts that come to mind about the effects of large fat consumptions are daunting, but Americans continue to indulge in the processed meats that have high fat contents.
There is a certain piece of the “processed meats are bad” story that can make consumers happy instead of scared to death. There have been examinations of certain types of sausage that have been found to have traces of vitamin C in them. In the April 2009 issue of Food Chemistry, there was an article that discussed the appearance of vitamin C in certain sausages. The vitamin C in the sausages that were analyzed had 11-40mg of vitamin C. The explanation that was given for why the vitamin C being in the sausage as an antioxidant was that it was used to preserve color (Fredriksen et al). This possibility might be one of the only positive findings that processed meat lovers can look forward to when dining on their favorite hot dog or bologna sandwich.
Some people who enjoy eating hot dogs, bologna, and other processed meat products are starting to get the message about the negative effects of eating these. Slowly the notion is sinking in that over-consumption of animal fat and trans fats can lead to serious health problems (Hoogenkamp 104). Many people think that if they just cut out eating pork processed meats and switch to turkey or chicken that it will decrease their chances of health problems. In the July 2008 issue of Good Housekeeping, Samantha Seneviratne says that often foods such as turkey and chicken hot dogs pack just as much salt, fat, and calories as their beefy brothers (Seneviratne).
Just as fast as the food world can send out warnings of what might be unhealthy to eat, it isn’t just as easy to come up with healthier versions of the processed meat product so that their consumers can still enjoy them. Healthy eating was at one time associated with food that lacked taste and variety (Eaton and Rouslin 90). That is the least of the meat manufacturer’s worries. Merely formulating with leaner cuts of meat creates three main problems: it changes the manufacturing variables, it significantly changes flavor, and it substantially increases costs (Hoognenkamp 105). Many meat manufacturers have gone the route of making reduced fat or fat free products. Eliminating the fat totally from the product has its disadvantages. Reduced fat levels usually translate into a drier, more rubbery texture. Spices and seasonings react differently when fat is reduced or eliminated. Also, if fat levels decrease, water content must increase (Hoogenkamp 105).
Many brands, such as Ball Park and Hebrew National have been successful in creating hot dogs that pack a lot of flavor and texture, but are low in calories, fat and sodium. Ball Park Lite Beef Franks have 50 percent less total fat and one third fewer calories. Hebrew National 97 percent Fat Free Franks were not very appealing to consumers because they had a coarse texture (Seneviratne). Other processed meats such as Hormel’s Spam has many alternative versions to cater to consumers. Spam Lite, 25% Less Salt/Sodium Spam, and 96 percent fat-free Spam, have all been introduced in the past 23 years and have had positive results in sales (Wyman). Also, all original and traditional reformulated sausages containing low or no fat have become mainstream in only a few years (Hoogenkamp 46).
The future for processed meats is bright. Because of the new awareness of effects of fat consumption, the current generation has been instrumental in shifting from the consumption of red meats to lower saturated fat foods, such as poultry (Hoogenkamp 104).Despite all of the health concerns, manufacturers know that they will be able to keep making the products because consumers will keep buying them. Sausages such as bratwurst and hotdogs combine convenience, great flavors, and entertainment qualities. Most hotdogs and frankfurters are eaten year round, but in the USA & Canada there is a definite consumption peak during baseball and barbecue seasons (Hoogenkamp 94). Spam is another processed meat product that has been surviving and will keep surviving. For 71 years on supermarket shelves, Spam has not only survived; its thrived. In recent quarters, Spam has sported double-digit sale increases (Creamer).
There will be changes that the processed meat industry will need to conform to. A sausage will always be a sausage, but the conceptual positioning and the perceived image will zero in on targeted customers who are in extremes, either prepared to pay for feeling good about themselves or who insist on the availability of quality foods at the lowest possible prices (Hoogenkamp 46). This holds true for these economic times that we are living in today. More and more manufacturers will have to think of more products that are reasonably priced, delicious, as well as nutritious for the human body over long periods of time.
Barnard, Neal. “Meat’s Striking Out.” USA Today. (May 2008). Academic Search
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C.R. “SALT SHAKE-UP.” Natural Health 36.9 (Oct. 2006): 20-20. Academic Search
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Creamer, Matthew. “THE ULTIMATE SUVIVOR. (Cover story).” Advertising Age 79.24 (16 June 2008):1-30. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Johnson & Wales University, Charlotte, NC. 16 Feb2008.
Demeyer, Daniel, Karl Honikel, and Stefaan De Smet. “The World Cancer Research Fund report 2007: A challenge for the meat processing industry.” Meat Science 80.4 (Dec. 2008):953-959. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Johnson & Wales University Library, Charlotte, NC. 17 Feb 2008.