Hi, my name is Jen Bruning and I am a Registered Dietitian with Guckenheimer.  Welcome to Food Myths Exposed where Guckenheimer’s dietitians deconstruct facts and debunk myths surrounding food, nutrition and health. Today I’m checking out meat- specifically, the cured and processed meats we know and love.

You may have read some scary headlines lately that foods like bacon and hot dogs will kill you but is there any science behind it? Are naturally cured meats really healthier? It’s important to understand if some of our favorite foods could be harming us, so let’s take a look at the latest research on natural nitrates, food preservatives, and the truth about America’s favorite breakfast meat.

For centuries, humans figured out ways of preserving food for later use and that includes meats.  Various salt compounds were used to cure meat for long-term storage.  Nitrite, a well-known food preservative, was used even then, in the form of a compound called “saltpeter”, or sodium nitrite.

Today, Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are used in foods like bacon and sausage as a way to extend shelf life and decrease bacterial growth in these meats, making them less likely to cause foodborne illness.  But for several decades, there has been a growing concern that these preservatives may be carcinogenic- causing numerous types of cancer.  Some food manufacturers will call their product “nitrate-free” but still use nitrate-containing ingredients such as celery juice or celery powder as a preservative. So are natural sources of nitrates better for us?

The nitrates that come from natural sources like celery are essentially that same as those that come from synthetic sources.  Additionally, recent research suggests that the real issue may not be the type of preservative, but instead the type of meat and how it’s cooked.

When red meat is cooked at high temperatures, like grilling, pan frying, or barbequing, carcinogenic compounds can be formed. The same is true for cured and processed meats like sizzling bacon or a grilled hotdog. Research suggests that it isn’t the nitrate that’s carcinogenic, but properties of the cooked meat itself.

So, should you avoid red meat completely?  Not necessarily. If you choose to eat red meat, do so on occasion.  Think of bacon, hotdogs, and steak as special event foods- a “splurge” that only happens every so often.  There are many healthful sources of protein to choose from like fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, and beans.  Base most of your meals on these proteins for better health.

When that special occasion arrives, shop smart:  check labels in the store before buying, as traditional cured meats tend to have high amounts of salt and fat.  Try turkey bacon or no-salt-added varieties. Talk to your butcher about lower sodium cured meats made from leaner cuts to help naturally limit the sodium and saturated fat content.  And don’t forget to balance your meal with sides of veggies and fruit.

If you think it’s time to reduce the amount of red meat in your diet, there are plenty of healthful and tasty foods you can eat instead.  Explore plant-based options for Meatless Monday, and meat-free products that can stand in for standard hamburgers.  When you do eat meat, choose lean animal products like fish, poultry and eggs, and think of bacon as a luxury to be savored and enjoyed on occasion.

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