The Dangerous Ingredient in Processed Meat

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When the article’s topic is processed meat and the study is from the International Journal of Cancer, it should be of no surprise that the news isn’t good. Well, at least for those people who love packaged meat sandwiches, that is.

 There is a rising tide of evidence that is starting to paint a clear picture that your risk of getting stomach cancer will increase if your diet includes healthy doses of salami, hot dogs, and other processed meats. The salt levels are bad enough and so is the saturated fat. According to a group of Swedish researchers, hidden ingredients — not put there on purpose, but as a natural by-product from the processing of meat — might be responsible for this link to cancer. They are called “nitrosamines.”

 Their study included more than 61,000 women. In them, they measured the risk of stomach cancer related to how much processed meat they ate, how much unprocessed red meat, and how much fish or poultry. So we know what’s what here, the processed meats included bacon/pork, sausage/hotdogs, and ham/salami. The unprocessed meats included hamburgers, meatballs, and meatloaf. They charted the women’s dietary habits for three years, ending in 1990, and they checked in again with the participants in 1997.

 In those 18 years, 156 people developed stomach cancer (as you can see this is a very low percentage). The only meat- related link to stomach cancer came with processed meat, and it was a statistically significant link. The other types of meat were in the clear. Women who ate three or more servings of processed meat a week had a 66% higher risk of developing stomach cancer than those who ate fewer than 1.5 servings a week.

 The culprit may be nitrosamines. Researchers found the cancer risk was twice as high for women who had the highest levels of this substance in their bodies, which was found in high levels within processed meat, as opposed to the women who didn’t consume it. Three servings a week is not much when you consider how many people have a processed-meat sandwich for lunch every day. The researchers suggest that switching from processed meat to poultry or fish can reduce your risk considerably.

 This news builds on a study from last year that found people who eat a lot of processed meat can raise their risk of pancreatic cancer by up to 70%. The researchers then said that meat-preparation techniques might be causing some cancerous substances to leach into the food. They identify charcoal barbecue, broiling, and any meat preservation that involves nitrates as being potentially harmful. Nitrates are another batch of hidden ingredients within processed meat — which are better known for their use in fertilizer — that have been implicated in cancer cases for years. In 2004, nearly 32,000 people in the U.S. developed pancreatic cancer.