The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has finally proclaimed it: Consumers should stop buying and eating all processed meat products for the rest of their lives. What? The All-American hot dog is killing us? The WCRF completed a detailed review of more than 7,000 clinical studies covering links between diet and cancer. Its conclusion: Processed meats are too dangerous for human consumption. Wow, could that be any more clear?
First, what did the WCRF label as processed meats? They included bacon, sausage, hot dogs, sandwich meat, packaged ham, pepperoni, salami and virtually all red meat used in frozen prepared meals. These are usually manufactured with a carcinogenic ingredient known as sodium nitrite. This is used as a color fixer/enhancer by meat companies to turn packaged meats a bright red color so they look fresh and to kill spores of Clostridium botulinum. Unfortunately, sodium nitrite also results in the formation of cancer causing nitrosamines in the stomach when combined with stomach acid. Nitrosamines are a known carcinogen. These lead to a sharp increase in cancer risk for those who eat them. Not to mention the added preservatives, colorings, additives, and flavorings that are not part of a healthy diet.
A 2005 University of Hawaii study found that processed meats increase the risk of pancreatic cancer by 67 percent. Another study revealed that every 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 50 percent. That is a huge increase. But, these cancer risks do not come from eating fresh, non-processed meats. They only appear in people who regularly consume processed meat products containing sodium nitrite.
Sodium nitrite appears predominantly in red meat products (you won’t find it in chicken or fish products). Here’s a short list of food items to check labels carefully for sodium nitrite: bacon, sausage, hot dogs, beef jerky, sandwich meat, frozen pizza with meat, ravioli and meat pasta foods, frozen meals with meat, and canned soups with meat. Worse, there’s some places you can’t check the ingredient label which nearly always serves red meats with sodium nitrite, such as public schools, restaurants, hospitals, hotels, and theme parks.
If the WCRF notes that sodium nitrite is so dangerous to humans, why do the FDA and USDA continue to allow this cancer causing chemical to be used? The answer? Food industry interests now dominate the actions by U.S. government regulators. The USDA tried to ban sodium nitrite in the late 1970’s (obviously they understood the devastating effect even then) but was overridden by the meat industry. That industry insisted the chemical was safe and accused the USDA of trying to “ban bacon.” Today, the corporations that dominate American food and agricultural interests hold tremendous influence over the FDA and USDA. Consumers are offered no real protection from dangerous chemicals intentionally added to foods.
Luckily, there are some brands of meat products that have no sodium nitrite, so you may not have to give up your bacon, just thoroughly read the label and choose one without sodium nitrite. Those companies preparing foods without it label their products well – they are proud to have created a healthier option. And we should be proud to support their efforts.