Celeb Trainer Harley Pasternak: Is Bacon Actually Bad for You? Here's the Truth
Everything in moderation, he warns — though not all cured and smoked meats are created equal
Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also aNew York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
It may be the biggest nutrition news of the year: The World Health Organization (WHO) now classifies processed meats as carcinogenic, thanks to their hydrocarbon and nitrate content. On the advice of its subsidiary the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which reviewed 800 studies published around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped the bombshell last week that processed meats can cause cancer, specifically colorectal (bowel) cancer.
The announcement sent the Internet abuzz, with vested interests lining up on all sides of the issue. Of course, the meat industry is challenging the validity of the research. And of course, vegetarians and vegans are smugly saying they have always known as much. Bacon lovers are aghast, trying to image life without BLTs and bacon cheeseburgers. Gourmets fear that they’ll never again be able to enjoy dishes such as cassoulet without guilt.
As the media hurricane swirls, I prefer to serve as a force of calm in the midst of the storm, by providing some facts about processed meats to help you make wise protein choices.
What Exactly Is Processed Meat?
In all the news coverage, I was pretty surprised at perhaps the biggest question here going largely unanswered: What exactly is processed meat, anyway? Unlike a pork chop, ground round or leg of lamb, which are considered fresh meat, processed meat has been treated in one or more ways to enhance its flavor or extend its shelf life.
Note that we aren’t talking, for example, about a prepared rolled and stuffed flank steak you can take home and pop in the oven. Processed meats contain ingredients that research has linked to an increased likelihood of getting cancer. Processing techniques include smoking, curing or adding preservatives, chemicals or other additives. In the days before refrigeration, this was how many people consumed meat products during the winter after most livestock was slaughtered.
Among a long list of processed meats is bacon, of course, as well as Canadian bacon, cured or smoked ham (not fresh ham), corned beef, pastrami, most sausages, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni and beef (and bison and venison) jerky. Many cold cuts, or as they are often called, sandwich or deli meats, also fall into the category, including bologna, bratwurst, prosciutto, capicola and a long list of other processed meats. Jarred or canned meats such as devilled ham, chipped beef, or corned beef hash would also fall into this category.
A Peek at the Processes
Smoking. As the name makes clear, smoke is used to preserve meat (as well as poultry or fish), which would otherwise spoil quickly in a long, slow process. Low heat cooks and dehydrates the meat, which also absorbs antibacterial properties from chemicals in the smoke that also help preserve it. In the old days, wood — especially the wood of fruit trees and hardwood species — grape vines, corncobs, woodchips or other natural materials were used. Today, industrial smoking often involves fuels such as propane to dry the meat and chemicals to achieve the smoked taste. Cold-smoking is sometimes used for smaller or sliced meats, such as jerky.
Curing. This is a rather catchall term that encompasses any treatment that preserves meat, as well as fish and vegetables, typically using salt, nitrates and nitrites, and often sugar. The salt gradually draws out the moisture. Nitrates, including sodium nitrate, tint the meat of bologna, hot dogs and bacon pink or reddish brown, while providing a distinctive flavor and sealing the surface to inhibit the growth of bacteria. The use of nitrates has long been controversial. Although small amounts of nitrates kill bacteria, including the one that can cause botulism, carcinogenic nitrosamines form when a food full of nitrates is cooked at a high temperature.
Other Additives to Look For
Additives serve a number of uses. Some help avoid rancidity, the breakdown of fat (oxidation), which creates an unpleasant odor and taste, and can be a health risk. Others enhance the texture and moisture content of smoked or dried foods. Still others are flavor enhancers and binders. Some add appealing color.
Following are some but not all of the additives you may find in processed meat products:
-BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) are antioxidants that turn up in sausages and dried meats. Their primary value is to keep fats from separating and becoming rancid. Both are derived from petroleum.
-Binders, also known as texturizers, stabilizers or thickeners, provide consistent texture. Three common ones are gelatin, carrageenan (found in seaweed) and dried whey.
-Gelatin is made from the bones, skin, tendons and ligaments of cows and other animals. You’ll find it in canned hams or jellied pigs feet.
-Glycerine helps retain softness and moisture in dried meat snacks.
-Hydrolyzed proteins are plant- or animal-based flavor enhancers.
-Monosodium glutamate (MSG), made from glutamic acid, is yet another favor enhancer.
-Phosphates help protect flavor and retain moisture, and are used in curing ham, among other meats.
-Propyl gallate is another antioxidant that prevents rancidity in pork sausage and other processed meats. It is sometimes used with BHA and BHT.
-Sodium caseinate is a binder found in hotdogs and other processed meats.
-Sodium erythorbate is synthesized from sugar — odd, but true — and helps fix the color in cured meats.
-Sugar, the ubiquitous ingredient, can be found in many processed meat products.
-Tocopherol (vitamin E) is another antioxidant that staves off rancidity in processed meats.
A Few Ways to Have Your Meat and Eat It Too
Anyone who knows me knows that I believe in moderation in all things. Knowin that there are certain risks to eating processed meats, especially, you may want to limit your intake, such as having only a couple of slices of bacon every few weeks, or having hot dogs only when you’re attending a baseball game or on the Fourth of July. Nor need you fear all meat. Modest portions of fresh meat are fine. I wouldn’t suggest you have red meat at every meal, but rather alternate it with poultry and fish as sources of animal protein.
To limit processed meat intake, consider the following:
-To avoid all chemicals or artificial ingredients, purchase certified organic lunchmeats, such as those made by Applegate. Because they contain no preservatives, organic meats should be eaten within a few days.
-Uncured pork bacon is available in certain supermarkets. Don’t assume turkey bacon is a safe alternative — it, too, is normally heavily processed.
-If you do occasionally have a processed meat product, accompany it with one or more of the vegetables in the cabbage family, which are known anti-carcinogens.
-Don’t allow any meat, including fresh meat, to char on the barbecue grill or under the broiler. Doing so can create the same chemicals that make processed meat dangerous.
-As always, don’t torture yourself over a piece of bacon or sausage every month or two. Savor it, and enjoy it as a treat that it is as part of an otherwise healthy diet of fresh, healthful ingredients.
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