Processed Meat – Is this healthy eating?  

What is processed meat?

Processed meat comes from beef, pork, lamb, goat and poultry. It can include many parts of an animal from fatty tissue, head meat, intestines, bones and meat blasted off carcasses, hooves and claws.  This left-over meat is treated with chemical additives to extend its shelf-life, change its texture, add colour to it and improve the flavour.

Some of the processes include salting, curing, fermenting, smoking and adding sugar, spices, food starches and synthetic preservatives and/or nitrates.

Food products that are categorized as processed meats include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, salami, smoked meats, dried meats, beef jerky, canned meats and a number of other deli meats.


  1. What does processed meat contain?

Let’s look at the following example of polony in more detail:

Polony is large finely ground animal product which includes the intestines, meat, bones, hooves and most of the entire animal and the animal product is sourced from cows, pigs or chickens.

Other ingredients are added to bulk up the product and give it its distinctive pink or orange colour and taste. Then it is cooked and packaged.

The ingredients, preparation, size and taste can vary widely by both manufacturer and region of sale.


Below is a list of many basic ingredients found in most processed meats:

  • Meat (Mechanically deboned)
  • Water
  • Vegetable protein (Soya)
  • Starch
  • Salt
  • Cereal (Wheat gluten)
  • Sugar
  • Phosphates
  • Maltodextrin
  • MSG (Flavour enhancer)
  • Spices (Irradiated)
  • Spice extracts
  • Acidulants
  • Hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Flavourants
  • Sodium erythorbate
  • Preservatives (Sodium nitrite and Sodium nitrate)
  • Colourants (Ex: Erythrosine CI45430; Caramel E150)


The meat is cut into pieces or ground, mixed with other ingredients, emulsified and filled into a casing. The lean meat-to-fat ratio depends upon the style and producer.

When the food processing industry produces a product which is offered at a lower cost to the public, almost any part of the animal can end up in in the product.


  1. What makes processed meat unhealthy?

When we eat fresh meat and poultry such as chicken, lean beef, pork and lamb, it provides nutritional benefits by:

  1. Improving muscle mass from protein and
  2. Providing vitamins and minerals (vitamin B and iron).

However, some of the processed meats can be detrimental to your health because the ingredients contain a very high salt content and MSG to enhance the flavour.

The MSG in products can contribute to weight gain as MSG generally affect a person’s taste buds and encourage overeating and a desire for larger amounts of food.


  1. What are diseases that could be caused by consuming processed meat?

Processed meats generally have too much salt (sodium chloride) and these high levels of salt can seriously affect a person with an existing hypertension diagnosis as salt increases blood pressure and risks for developing heart disease or stroke, especially in people who have a condition called salt-sensitive hypertension.

There are also observational studies that indicate that a high salt intake in your diet can increase your risk of stomach cancers. This is supported by studies showing that a high-salt diet may increase the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes stomach ulcers, an important risk factor for stomach cancer.

The sugar that is added to processed meats can contribute to insulin resistance and increase the total calorie intake for the day. If the calories are not used, it can lead to unwanted body weight gain and fat mass.

Within processed meats you can also have a high level of fat, especially saturated fats. When we eat large amounts of saturated fats, it can increase the risk of developing cholesterol and the risk of heart diseases and stroke as well.

Then there are nitrates in some processed meats, which inhibit the growth of botulism, a dangerous food-borne illness. The nitrates also preserve the red/pink colour and improve the flavour.

Nitrite in processed meat can turn into harmful N-nitroso compounds, the most widely studied of which are nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are substances that are cancer-causing (carcinogens). Nitrosamines is found in contaminated drinking water, salted and pickled foods and tobacco smoke. However, the main dietary source of nitrosamines is processed meat.

Nitrosamines are mainly formed when processed meat products are exposed to high heat (above 266°F or 130°C), such as when frying bacon or grilling sausages. But it can also occur during processing meat and can even be found in the stomach after eating processed meats.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the cancer agency for the World Health Organization, has classified processed meat as a carcinogenic.

Studies reviled that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog per day.

Many studies have also found strong associations between poor lifestyle choices and high consumption of processed meat; that is, those who make unhealthy choices like smoking or drinking alcohol in excess are more likely to consume higher amounts of processed meat. The American Institute for Cancer Research states that eating regular amounts of processed meat will increase your risk for cancer.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when burning wood or charcoal, dripping fat that burns on a hot surface or burnt or charred meat. Smoking meat as a method to preserve meat can be high in PAHs.

When cooking meat under high temperatures such as frying or grilling meat, chemical compounds called Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed.

These chemical compounds are not only found in processed meats but are predominantly in fried bacon, sausages and meat burgers.  HCAs can cause cancer when given to animals in high amounts. Many observational studies in humans indicate that eating meat products cooked at very high temperatures could increase the risk of cancer in the colon, breast and prostate.


  1. What are other things people should caution when it comes to meat consumption in general?

As long as fresh animal meat and poultry comes from a reliable distributor, lean cuts of meat that are not processed (only cut up and packaged) are considered the healthier choice to benefit your health and muscle mass.

Choosing more fish, poultry, soya or beans instead of red meat and processed meats can help to prevent cancer and other chronic diseases.

A diet high in plant-based foods including fruits, vegetable, beans and legumes, and eating whole grains will improve a person’s gut health, body weight and also decrease the risks of developing chronic diseases.

Maintaining good health means implementing beneficial lifestyle habits such as avoiding tobacco, achieving and maintaining a favourable weight, limiting alcohol intake and ensuring regular physical activity to decrease the risks of developing chronic diseases.

Compiled by:


Tanya Alberts, Co-Founder of Transform Your Health Network

The real danger of processed meat

About the author:

Tanya has been providing dietary guidance since 2009 as a registered dietician licensed in South Africa. Her goal is to help patients understand the connection between diet and diagnosis for improved nutritional well being.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Email address is required.