It’s a common sight in the streets of most urban towns in the country to encounter vendors selling a variety of snacks on food carts. Though there is some danger in such foods, the foods are typically small snacks that can be enjoyed in a hurry.
In the past such snacks included the likes of roasted maize, peanuts and mutura. In recent years however, these have been quickly overtaken by a couple of new entrants.
The first are fruits such as watermelon, pineapple, sugarcane and salads, all which whose popularity could perhaps be attributed to the increased awareness on healthy eating.
The second are what we could refer to as “protein snacks” that range from boiled eggs to sausages and smokies. The latter two are increasingly becoming popular, and it’s this trend that is largely responsible for this article.
Processed Meats in Our Homes and Streets
Sausages and smokies belong to a group of meats called processed meats. This means, unlike your meat from the butchery, they have undergone some form of processing for preservation and/or to improve the meats properties such as taste, texture and appearance.
The kind and extent of the processing depends on the final product as there exists a wide variety of processed meats. However, for most Kenyans, the aforementioned two are by far the most popular. Other processed meats include the likes of bacon, ham, hot dogs and salami.
Why You Should Limit Intake of Processed Meats?
Generally speaking, it’s advised to limit the intake of processed meats mostly due to two reasons:
- they are red meat whose high intake is associated with an increased risk of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes type 2 and gout.
- they are usually preserved with nitrates (sodium nitrate) which produces substances (nitrosamines) that are classified as carcinogenic (i.e. cancer causing).
The second reason has in recent years become a major talking point in matters cancer since 4 years ago (2015) when the World Health Organization’s agency for Cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classified processed meats as carcinogenic.
A point to note is that in the same report, red meat was also implicated as a probable carcinogen.
Are Nitrates Bad?
Nitrates are used as they protect the preserved meat against a
poisonous producing bacteria (botulinum) that is very fatal to humans.
Nitrates are also responsible for giving these meats their
characteristic pink colour.
The risk of botulinum
poisoning far outweighs that of cancer which would probably explain the
continued use of nitrates for preserving some processed meats.
However, not all nitrates are bad. As a matter of fact, they can be found in water and foods such as vegetables which absorb it from the soil, water and the atmosphere.
In the case of processed meats, they are risky as they interact with other compounds in the meat to produce the carcinogenic substances.
Do the Processed Meats Cause Cancer?
Well, according to WHO it does but the overall risk is minimal. While processed meats are classified in the same category as smoking (Group 1 carcinogen), the cancer risk posed by smoking is way 20 times higher compared to that of processed meats.
With that said, the risk is still there which means the higher the intake of processed meats the higher the risk for cancer. The main cancer that processed meats is linked to is colorectal cancer. According to the IARC, a link with stomach cancer was also seen however the evidence for this was not conclusive.
One should however consider other cancer risk factors when assessing the risk posed by processed meats. It’s from the overall risk posed by different factors that one can make a more accurate assessment of their cancer risk.
These other risk factors include:
- lack of exercise
- occupational exposure
- environmental pollutants
How to minimize your risk?
These revelations don’t necessarily mean that you should stop eating sausages and some of your other favourite processed meats. Instead, it suggests one reduce their intake.
So rather than eating them every day as it the habit of some, they should be reserved as an occasional treat. If one can however avoid them completely, then even better.
With that said, it’s prudent to completely reduce the risk across the board; that is, not just because of cancer but also lifestyle diseases which are similarly on the rise.
Therefore, as per our previous recommendation, when it comes to meat:
- consider switching from red meat to white meat e.g. poultry and fish.
- buy lean red meat or trim out the excess fat before cooking
- ensure the fresh meat you buy from the butchery is safe (has been inspected) and is not preserved with unsafe chemicals
In addition to this:
- eat a healthy balanced diet that’s low in processed foods, saturated fats (avoid trans-fats) and sugar and, that is rich in vegetables and fruits
- prefer whole-grain foods over the refined
- substitute meat with protein rich pulses/legumes which are not only healthy but affordable
- reduce alcohol intake
- maintain a healthy weight
- exercise regularly
1. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat
2. WHO report says eating processed meat is carcinogenic: Understanding the findings
3. Does Processed Meat Increase Breast Cancer Risk?