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Processed meats can be very bad for us - so what does the future of the ham sandwich look like?

It’s been three years since the WHO released its guidelines about processed meat – so why aren’t we listening?

Ciara Wright PhD Nutritional Therapist

IS YOUR HAM sandwich killing you? It’s been three years since the WHO released its guidelines about processed meat.

At the time, on-street reporters interviewed builders and students about the possibility of giving up their breakfast rolls.

The response was as expected, with comments about where the nanny state could go with its new advice.

That said, we heard the same responses to the smoking ban, but in reality this policy has been wildly successful. Less people smoke now than ever and our workplaces are thankfully free of second-hand carcinogens.

Who cares about the WHO?

The WHO (World Health Organisation) does not issue guidelines without doing their due diligence.

They are in fact rather conservative and it usually takes them aeons to issue across-the-board guidelines.

That’s because they are evidence-based. Robust evidence is hard to come by, takes time and money and quite literally the blood, sweat and tears of lab researchers.

So when they came out and said that nitrite and nitrates as preservatives in processed meat were a likely carcinogen, they weren’t messing about.

So why aren’t we listening? We were all reared on the ham sandwich; a mainstay of children’s lunchboxes, beach picnics and train journeys. Ham is a processed meat. It contains preservatives that could cause cancer. It seems odd, to say the least, that everyone is fully aware of this but still dishes them out to children all across the land.

Has the ham sandwich actually killed anyone?

If we were reared on ham sandwiches, even the really processed kinds of packaged ham, corned beef and ‘billy roll’ (cue stomach heave), how come we don’t all have colon cancer?

Actually the rates of colon cancer in Ireland are quite high; it is the second most common form of cancer.

The National Cancer Registry Ireland tells us there are almost 2,000 new cases each year, with 1,000 deaths and this is on the increase.

This prompted the government to roll out the national screening programme. However, not everyone will get cancer from potential carcinogens.

shutterstock_189105005 Source: Shutterstock/D. Pimborough

Our bodies are remarkably resilient to all the harmful stuff we encounter. We wouldn’t have done well as a species otherwise.

But some people are at higher risk than others. Perhaps it’s a genetic susceptibility; colon
cancer does run in families. Perhaps your immune system is taking a holiday; over worked from too much stress and poor nutrition.

Perhaps your gut isn’t in ship-shape and your usual defences and protective mechanisms just aren’t cutting it. And then you add the carcinogens.

The truth is we do not have a crystal ball that can say, ‘this one should be okay eating ham, but you sir, should book your colonoscopy now!’. So why risk it?

They don’t make it like they used to. It can be said that they don’t make ham the way they used to. Once upon a time, salt was the only preservative used and this is still true only of Parma ham.

Parma ham has a protected designation of origin which was awarded because they adhere to the ancient traditional ways of preservation.

This is not true of Serrano ham, prosciutto or ‘Italian ham’ so do check the label.

It is encouraging that companies are looking at alternative ways to preserve meat. A couple of products tried to claim ‘natural preservatives’ but all that is natural is not always safe.

It turns out the celery extract and other vegetable extracts or fermented broths are natural sources of nitrate and nitrites which still have the same effect.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has clamped down on this and after many discussions at EU level have declared that a deliberate use of preservative in this way is not authorised (under Regulation 1333/2008 in case you were really interested).

The good news

Don’t weep for the bacon roll just yet. Thankfully Naked Bacon from Northern Ireland is fully nitrate and nitrite free and is not actually cured but still tastes like bacon. They use a ‘secret ingredient’, a mix of herbs and spices to obtain the flavour of bacon without preserving the meat.

It’s not easy to swallow ‘secrets’ in your food, but the Food Safety Authority of Ireland maintain that this is acceptable so long as it is not used to preserve the meat.

Of course, it is important to note that bacon is a source of salt and saturated fat and best evidence would suggest you keep these kinds of food to a minimum as part of a well-balanced diet. But let’s enjoy the good news for the moment.

Ciara Wright PhD DipNT is Senior Nutritional Therapist and Director of Glenville Nutrition and The Wellness Crew

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About the author:

Ciara Wright PhD  / Nutritional Therapist

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