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Study by cancer researchers addresses concerns about deli meats, hot dogs, sausages and bacon

Posted Sunday, Aug. 07, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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What are processed meats?

The American Institute for Cancer Research defines processed meat as "meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or by the addition of preservatives." They list examples as ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, hot dogs and sausages.

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While processed meats have recently joined cellphones, microwaves and diet soda on the dreaded linked-to-cancer list, it may not be necessary to bid farewell to turkey sandwiches forever. We've put together a fact versus fiction guide. It may make you think twice about your daily dose of bacon, but you don't have to feel guilty about that once-in-a-while hot dog.

Processed meats increase the risk of developing cancer: FACT

In May, the American Institute for Cancer Research released results of an ongoing study that links processed meats to a spike in risk of developing colorectal (colon or rectum) cancer. Study results show that a person who eats 3.5 ounces of processed meat every day has a 36 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than a person who eats no processed meat.

The AICR and dietitians recommend that we cut processed meats out of our diets completely: FICTION

The AICR takes a slightly less-absolute stand on processed meats, advising people to "avoid" them. Alice Bender, nutrition communications manager for the AICR, says to save processed meats for special occasions. "It's OK to have a hot dog if you go to a baseball game twice a year," she says. Amy Goodson, a dietitian at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, says to select which processed meats you want to keep in your diet and pair them with fresh options. If you must have a turkey sandwich at lunch, eat it on whole wheat bread with tomato and lettuce, and pair it with a salad and water rather than chips and a soda. And then skip the bratwurst at dinner.

It's the preservatives in processed meats that can lead to cancer: FICTION

Bender says there is no conclusive evidence that details what exactly it is in processed meats that brings about the increased colorectal cancer risk. One possibility is the presence of heme iron, which researchers say can possibly damage the lining of the colon. Another option is the nitrate preservatives added to processed meats, Bender says. To increase shelf life, as well as to add color and taste, companies add sodium nitrate to processed meats, Goodson says. While nitrates are not always harmful -- they're found naturally in a lot of vegetables and are typically processed as waste by the body -- they can react to form carcinogens, she said. In some cases, nitrates are converted to nitrites, which can combine with compounds in the body to form nitrosamines. "It's the nitrosamines that have the ability to bind to DNA and mutate, which is where cancerous cells come from," Goodson says. She places the emphasis on "can"--"a lot of times nitrates just get processed out of the body as waste," she says. Though both are viable options, Bender stresses that no conclusion has been made on what in processed meats makes them dangerous.

Cooking processed meats makes them more dangerous: FICTION

The chemical reaction where the harmful nitrosamines are formed happens more readily at high temperatures, which leads some to warn against smoking or grilling processed meats, a process that leaves meat at a high temperature for a long period of time, Goodson says. As well, Bender says that grilling meat is known to produce potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Despite this knowledge, there isn't conclusive evidence that says eating processed meat that has been grilled or smoked is worse than eating it cold. The AICR recommends grilling vegetables instead, or cooking over less extreme temperatures.

All sandwiches are unsafe: FICTION

While prepackaged sandwich meats may be off-limits, Goodson suggests making your own. Bake or boil a whole chicken and use it throughout the week on sandwiches or in deli-style salads. Some brands now make sliced deli meat with no added preservatives or nitrates, but Bender stresses that because it is not known what in processed meats is linked to cancer, they may not be in the clear. Hormel's Natural Choice line, for example, boasts a selection of turkey, ham, roast beef, salami and chicken breast that has no added preservatives or nitrates. It's certainly a fresher option, but it may not squelch the risks of eating processed meat.

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