They're a lunch box staple, but what are processed meats, what's in processed meat, and how does processed meat effect your diet?
It’s America. We were raised on hotdogs at baseball games and sausage at breakfast. While you could argue that these foods are meat-derived, ham isn’t the same as a pork chop, and roast beef isn’t equivalent to grass-fed filet. The main difference comes in the form of nasty fillers, texturizers, salts, sugars and chemical preservatives that result in processed meat.
So what’s the problem with eating processed meats (as opposed to regular ol'red meat) and the chemicals associated with them? Eating processed meats like sausage, pepperoni, hot dogs, salami, bacon and most deli cold-cuts has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. That’s ‘cause the main preservative used, called nitrite, is carcinogenic, meaning it’s toxic and associated with causing cancer. Nitrites were almost banned in the 70’s but food manufacturers boycotted and won. So why would manufacturers want to use something toxic?
Coloring! When meat starts getting old, it turns brown (and eventually green) from oxidation. But nitrites prevent this, keeping meat bright red and looking fresh. But that’s not the only reason you want to avoid snappin’ into a Slim Jim. When it comes to processed meats, there’s also the salt content, the occasional addition of MSG (a neurotoxin), BHT (also an ingredient in jet fuel) and high fructose corn syrup. Plus you usually have no idea what ingredients these meats are made from. For instance I bet you had no idea that deli Salami is made of beef hearts and mechanically separated chicken. Google it. Ew.
But let’s get right down to it and discuss why some of your favorite processed meats aren’t as great for you as you thought they were when you were trading lunchables in elementary school.
Have you ever wondered where cold-cuts come from? I mean, that oval shaped ball of Boar’s Head has come a long way from the fresh turkey you eat at Thanksgiving. Deli meat is de-boned and certain proteins are extracted by adding salt and “tumbling” (imagine what goes on in a laundry machine) so it’s soft and uniform and easily molded into whatever shape and casing Butterball desires. It’s then heated so it’s bound together and preservatives and flavorings are added. Sorry to break it to ya, that smoked ham deli meat isn’t typically roasted over natural wood smoke – instead you can thank chemists for the woodsy flavor. Just something to ponder next time you’re downing a $5 foot long at Subway.
Products like sausage (which includes hotdogs, salami, and pepperoni) are a little more stomach wrenching. Back in the day, sausage was a way to make use of all the leftover parts of an animal like organs, blood and fat. Yum. These days, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says that your Ball Park dog is made from “specially selected meat trimmings” – meaning mostly muscle from beef, poultry and pork. So while it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that you’re eating pig brains and other mystery meats, your Jumbo Frank can still be made of up to 15% “variety meats” like heart, liver and kidney. However the most alarming part of your favorite processed meat may be its casing. Wanna guess what it’s made from? If you happened to say pig intestines, high five!!
I know beef jerky is a fan favorite, and rightfully so if you look at the nutrition label but avoid the ingredient section. It’s super high in protein and low in fat and carbs. Body builders dream, right? Well not so fast my friends. When you take a closer look you’ll see that most of the popular brands like Jack Links, Oberto and Pemmican are filled with nitrites, MSG, artificial flavors, sugars, and sooo much sodium that their shelf lives probably outlive all of us. But before you cross your beloved beef/salmon/alligator/buffalo/turkey jerky off your snack list, there are plenty of all-natural versions out there (Jack Links even makes one) that are much better for you as they don’t have all of the nitrites and other artificial ingredients.
One of my favorite rap songs from living in New Orleans starts off: “I’m from the ghetto homie… I was raised on bread and bologna”. I think it’s safe to say the lunch meat has come a long way from its roots as a delicacy in Italy. But what exactly is the pink mystery meat? The American versions are usually some mixture of mechanically separated chicken, beef, pork, or turkey. Yes, Oscar Mayer has a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a, cause after adding spices, there’s also the corn syrup, nitrites, and autolyzed yeast- which sounds very little like the neurotoxin MSG- but crazily enough, once the yeast breaks down it’s exactly the same thing. Pretty tricky.
While I might be sticking to veggie burgers after writing this, I know how seriously you take your summer bbq's (and sausage-fests, muahaha). You don’t need to go dog-less, but if you have the option, stick with all-natural, nitrite free wieners! Same goes for sandwich meats. There are plenty of better brands out there like Hormel Natural Choice or Applegate Farms. Ideally you’ll have unprocessed options like steak, burgers, poultry, pork and fish, but when making a decision on processed meats, double check the ingredient label. As a rule of thumb the fewer (and more pronounceable) ingredients you see, the less processed foods and meats you eat, the better off you’ll be.