What Is Processed Meat? Why Is It Bad?

Processed sausage wrapped in pastry and cheese

Super-Junk: Processed sausage wrapped in pastry and cheese – blueprint for a heart attack!

OK, processed and red meat has been in the news again this week. Researchers found a link between the consumption of red meat and coronary heart disease, and also another new study has provided more evidence for a link between processed meat and colon cancer. The general rules are:

  • Red meat (beef steaks, minced / ground beef) are bad. 
  • All processed meat is bad

Red meat is easy to steer clear of, just don’t eat beef, burgers, meatballs or anything else made from cows. But what is processed meat? Is it all bad? And why is it bad?

Processed Meat


At its most basic level, processed meat is any meat product which has undergone some form of treatment prior to being cooked or eaten. This includes salting, curing, smoking and various modern factory processes to lengthen the shelf life of the meat. Here is a selection of processed meats (by no means a complete list):

  • Ham
  • Bacon
  • Salami
  • Sausages
  • Hotdogs
  • Raw fermented sausages
  • Pepperoni
  • Chorizo
  • Spam
  • Corned beef
  • Beef jerky
  • Paté

Also watch out for processed in the following:

  • Meats on frozen pizzas
  • Ravioli

The following table shows the various methods of meat processing and gives some examples of foods produced. See the FAO.org link below for more details.

Processed Foods from FAO.org

Source: CATEGORIES OF PROCESSED MEAT PRODUCTS on Fao.org

What Is The Health Risk?

A majority of human studies have been cohort studies (reviewing the lifestyles of subjects through interviews and comparing to current health) and this is where the trends are seen – people who consume more processed meat on average are dying earlier from diseases such as heart disease and some cancers.

The cause seems to be due mostly to increased concentrations of salt, nitrates and saturated fat in processed meat.

Meat Processing

As mentioned, there are several different types of processing. There are traditional methods such as curing, smoking and salting as well as modern methods which are often done under laboratory conditions in factories.

Curing

The word is derived from the common meaning, to cure something from a disease. In the past the reason for bacterial infections was not understood, but a process to reduce them occurring was developed nonetheless. Curing involves adding salts, nitrates and sugar to food. 

Smoking

Smoking is also a curing process. Smoking helps to seal the outer layer of food and makes it harder for bacteria to enter the food. Smoking can also cook the food, resulting in a very tender meat. Smoked salmon and beef jerky are popular smoked meats. Many hams and bacon are smoked.

Sugar

Many types of sugar are added to food to cure it including honey, corn syrup, maple syrup. Sugar has two roles in curing – it helps to preserve the meat and it also sweetens the flavor of salt that is often also added. Sugar also helps to preserve meat by promoting the growth of Lactobacillus, which  is a type of bacteria that is beneficial. Lactobacillus is present in the “gut flora”. Lactobacillus  is also used to make cheese and yogurt.

Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are often used to preserve meats. They kill bacteria and also give pork products the pink or red color. The use of sodium nitrite or potassium nitrate in meat processing is now regulated, as they produce nitrosamines to form in the meat which is a carcinogenic (cancer causing) compound which has been linked with liver and oesophageal cancer.

Burgers – Can Be Un-Processed

Burgers can be healthy, if they are made fresh just from minced beef and seasoning. However, many frozen burgers and the burgers served in fast food restaurants will have had more “processing” prior to freezing.

Do Expensive Sausages Improve Health?

No. Even the most expensive sausages are processed meat

All Chicken and Poultry Is Good – Even if Processed

So far all chicken and poultry products, including chicken pies and other processed chicken, seems to be OK.

While some celebrity chefs have been very critical of chicken nuggets and other processed chicken foods, the only problem is that at times there can be too much salt. The biggest problem is probably that they are usually fried which means added saturated fat and a lot more calories than fresh chicken contains. By volume chicken nuggets contain fewer nutrients, so are in theory an unhealthy option.

Many nuggets do also contain preservatives, such as tBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) and dimethylpolysiloxane. There are actually no known health risks when used within food guidelines, however, too much tBHQ has been linked with stomach cancer and DNA damage in laboratory tests.

Fish – Also OK

Fish often undergoes processing, such as smoking and salting. No studies have found this to cause health problems.

Fresh Meat In Moderation Is OK

So far no studies have found fresh meat in moderation to be bad. Although one study has found a link between L-Carnitite in red meat and heart disease, most studies have found no association between eating moderate amounts of fresh meat and heart disease.

As seen with L-Carnitite in beef, the problem may not be salt, nitrates or sugar as individual components, but how they interact with the various types of meat and the human digestive system.

How Much Meat is Safe To Eat?

Following the latest research published in BMC Medicine The British government’s recommendation is that no more than the equivalent of 2 rashers of bacon a day.

The Department of Health also recommends that a maximum of 70 grams of total red and processed meat is eaten daily, which is less than one average sized sausage and about half an average sized beef steak. In short – we are generally eating too much meat.

Sabine Rohrmann from the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Zurich recommends that you limit processed meat to less than 1 ounce (28 grams) per day.

Meat, both red meat and processed meat, along with tobacco, sugar and alcohol, are foods which you really need to moderated your consumption of if health is something that you take seriously.

Many people are quick to criticize those who drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes, but then consume vast amounts of bacon, steaks and processed meats because they “need” the protein for healthy muscular development. Well, as we talked about before, vegans seem to do very well without it, so meat is not really a requirement to a healthy and athletic body. In fact, it may be a hindrance.

If your health is important to you, then you should start to eliminate all processed red meats, consider reducing processed poultry and fish products (due to salt concentrations) and cut back on fresh red meat too – see The Red Meat Debate – Is It Safe?


Research and Advice About Processed Meat

Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition by Rohrmann et al BMC Medicine 2013, 11:63 doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-63. Published: 7 March 2013.

Main conclusion:  There is a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer.

Relevance of nitrosamines to human cancer (pdf) by Helmut Bartsch and Ruggero Montesano. Cardnogenesis Vol.5 no.ll pp.1381 -1393, 1984. (the paper refers to 170 other research papers on the topic).

Red and processed meats and cancer prevention – World Cancer Research Fund. Accessed 9 Apr 2013.

Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer – NHS Livewell

Meat Processing Technology by Gunter Heinz and Peter Hautzinger. FAO.org. Produced by:  Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

This publication describes the different types of processed meat and explains in detail how each process is carried out. Includes examples of foods.

Processed Meat in the News

Processed meat scare: a bacon sandwich won’t kill you … will it? – The Guardian, 7 March 2013, talking about processed meat.

Processed Meat May Play a Part in Early Death: Study by Steven Reinberg on HON.ch

More like this in the Weight Loss section

  5 comments for “What Is Processed Meat? Why Is It Bad?

  1. Joe Thomas
    May 11, 2013 at 1:49 am

    I thought eating meat daily is kind of a bad habit. Personally I eat red meat around 2 or 3 times a week. Also I’m lowering my processed food consuming. But it is really hard to leave bad habits behind. Anyway I’m on my way. Thanks for the info.

  2. Erikaaaaaaaaaa
    November 25, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I LOVED THIS ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Cynthia James
    May 23, 2015 at 1:49 am

    Loved your article!!!! I can’t believe that all these years, how I’ve been eating unhealthy. Well, as the saying goes, better late than never. I will be following your article and eating healthier for my family and myself. After all, who doesn’t want to live a long healthy and happy life. Thanks again

  4. vanitha ashokan
    October 25, 2016 at 5:23 am

    Well thus article has really been helpful, lately I just eat hamburgers like once a week or none at all I have been eating been eating more fish lately too. I have a question is ground turkey processed meat I hope not I use a lot of that for cooking for my friend. I told him that processed meat causes a lot of diseases, I think he understood cause he’s been eating less of it. I hardly cook any process meat for him or do I advice him not to eat them he eats chicken,, fish and an occasional hamburger like me. good huh

  5. MotleyHealth
    November 5, 2016 at 10:36 am

    IMO, fresh meat that is ground or minced is not processed. If it is fresh meat, freshly cooked, that’s fine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *