A study examined a number of ready-to-eat meat products for the presence of heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs can increase your risk of stomach, colon and breast cancers.
According to MSNBC:
Pepperoni had the least HCA content ... followed by hot dogs and deli meat ... Fully cooked bacon ... and rotisserie chicken meat ... contained all five types of HCAs tested. Rotisserie chicken skin had significantly higher HCA levels".
You might have missed the media headlines last month which extolled hotdogs as better for you than chicken. If you click on the Time Magazine link above you can get a taste of this nonsense. This is a perfect example of how taking too narrow-minded a view can lead you astray from the truth about what's healthy and what's not.
Here, the researchers measured several different types of meats for levels of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and because hot dogs and pepperoni happened to have lower levels of HCAs than rotisserie chicken, MSNBC leapt to the conclusion that these processed meats are better for you because they're "relatively free of carcinogenic compounds."
They're just relatively lower in ONE type of carcinogenic compound!
But hot dogs and other processed meats contain OTHER compounds that put them squarely on the list of foods to avoid or eliminate entirely...
What You Need to Know about HCAs
Heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, are compounds created in meats and other foods that have been cooked at high temperatures. The worst part of the meat is the blackened section, which is why you should always avoid charring your meat, and never eat charred sections.
Studies have shown that humans who consume large amounts of HCAs have increased risk of stomach, colon and breast cancers.
But HCAs aren't the only cancer-causing chemicals created during cooking. A couple of other well-known compounds include:
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): Many processed meats are smoked as part of the curing process, which causes PAHs to form. PAH's can also form when grilling. When fat drips onto the heat source, causing excess smoke, and the smoke surrounds your food, it can transfer cancer-causing PAHs to the meat.
- Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): When food is cooked at high temperatures—including when it is pasteurized or sterilized—it increases the formation of AGEs in your food. AGEs build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.
In this particular study, published in the June issue of Meat Science, researchers specifically measured the HCA content of a variety of meats and found they contained the following amounts of this cancer-causing compound:
- Pepperoni--0.05 ng/g
- Hot dogs and deli meats--0.5 ng/g
- Fully cooked bacon--1.1 ng/g
- Rotisserie chicken--1.9 ng/g
- Rotisserie skin--16.3 ng/g
Clearly, when it comes to HCAs, the skin of rotisserie chicken is one of the worst culprits, so the advice to remove the skin is a good one. However, although they admit that other ready-to-eat processed meats contain lower HCA levels because they are enhanced with "a water solution with flavoring added to them," MSNBC fails to add that these added ingredients make processed meats far from healthful.
You simply cannot judge the danger of a food by its HCA content alone, which is based on the manner in which its been cooked. You also have to evaluate all those added ingredients, such as preservatives, flavoring, and food colors.
Why You Should Avoid Processed Meats
Virtually all processed meats contain another well-known carcinogen: sodium nitrite. It's a commonly used preservative and antimicrobial agent that also adds color and flavor to processed and cured meats. Hot dogs, deli meats and bacon are notorious for their nitrite content, so even though they might be low in HCA's, they are far from healthful.
Nitrites can be converted into nitrosamines in your body, which are potent cancer-causing chemicals. Research has linked nitrites to higher rates of colorectal-, stomach- and pancreatic cancer.
Needless to say, should you choose to char your hot dog on the grill instead of heating it up in the microwave (which is what these researchers did) then you'd have both nitrites and HCA's to contend with from that hot dog.
The truth is, processed meats are not a healthful choice for anyone and should be avoided entirely, according to a recent review of more than 7,000 clinical studies examining the connection between diet and cancer! The report was commissioned by The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) using money raised from the general public. Therefore the findings were not influenced by any vested interests, which makes it all the more reliable.
It's the biggest review of the evidence ever undertaken, and it confirms previous findings: Processed meats increase your risk of cancer, especially bowel cancer, and NO amount of processed meat is "safe." A previous analysis by the WCRF found that eating just one sausage a day raises your risk of developing bowel cancer by 20 percent!
Other studies have also found that processed meats increase your risk of:
- Colon cancer by 50 percent
- Bladder cancer by 59 percent
- Stomach cancer by 38 percent
- Pancreatic cancer by 67 percent
And that's not all.
Hot dogs, bacon, salami and other processed meats may also increase your risk of diabetes by 50 percent, and lower your lung function and increase your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
People who eat processed meats regularly also tend to eat fewer vegetables than others, which likely only compounds any health risks.
So what's the moral of this story?
Don't jump to conclusions based on piecemeal reporting. The overall evidence is actually pretty cut-and-dry: processed meats will raise your cancer risk and should be avoided as much as possible. So, don't believe you're eating healthier by switching from grilled chicken to hot dogs and other processed meats.
How to Shop for Less Harmful Hot Dogs and Deli Meats
Now, if you are going to eat hot dogs or other processed meats once in awhile, here are a few shopping tips to reduce their harmful health effects:
- Look for "uncured" varieties that contain NO nitrates
- Choose varieties that say 100% beef, 100% chicken, etc. This is the only way to know that the meat is from a single species and does not include byproducts (like chicken skin or chicken fat or other parts)
- Avoid any meat that contains MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor or artificial color
- Ideally, purchase sausages and other processed meats from a small, local farmer who you can ask about the ingredients
Again, these are still not ideal as they're still processed, but they are better than the vast majority of processed meats on the market.
Healthier Meat Choices
Now, if you want to eat truly healthful meat, make sure the meat is organic and grass-fed (preferably from a local farmer). Chickens should be organic, pastured chickens. This is an essential requirement healthy meat.
Meats from conventional Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) are loaded with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals and should be avoided entirely.
To counteract some of the harmful effects of cooking, add homemade spice rubs, herb-enhanced marinades or even fresh blueberries to your meat prior to cooking it. This will not only impart added health benefits but will also help cut down on the harmful substances formed!
Better yet, use the same spice rubs and marinades, but eat the meat only lightly cooked or raw. Keep in mind though that when eating your meat raw, it's IMPERATIVE that the meat is organically raised and grass-fed. Never eat conventional CAFO meats raw as - CAFO raised meats typically come from very unhealthy animals that can harbor dangerous infectious agents.