I have held this vague notion for a long time that this form of meat, as well as other processed meats, are just not a healthy food choice.
So I have been thinking for a while that I need to find out exactly why they say that processed meats, including sausages, aren’t good for you. Is it the additives and preservatives? Is it the high amounts of salt? In the case of sausages, is it the cuts of meat used to make them? Are there are some kinds that are better than others? Should I relax the rules at home about not eating processed meat too often?
One suspicion commonly held against processed meats is that they cause cancer. But I found mixed evidence of this.
In 2006, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden seemed to find a connection between processed meats and stomach cancer.
They analyzed the results of 15 studies, of patients suffering from stomach cancer, published over the last 40 years across Europe, and North and South America .
They found that, compared to the normal population, those people with stomach cancer were more likely to have processed meats in their diet – foods like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, land liver pate, and that the highest risk factor among these was bacon.
But as can happen with scientific studies, this one was not conclusive because it was felt that it could well be that people who ate processed meats led a lifestyle that predisposed them to cancer from other causes, rather than it being that the processed meats were the cause.
But the results added to a growing body of other evidence linking processed meats to cancer. Last year in a study they were linked to pancreatic cancer, and in other earlier studies, to cancers of the colon and rectum.
So how might the consumption of processed meats lead to cancer?
This brings us to two controversial ingredients of processed meat; the additives and the preservatives- the latter are the nitrates and the nitrites which are added to meat to retard rancidity, to stabilize flavor, and to establish the characteristic pink color of cured meat, and because they are antioxidants.
As with the link between processed meat and cancer, the news on nitrites is somewhat mixed.
The concern really centers around nitrosamines, or the compounds derived from the nitrate and nitrite salts, which are known to be carcinogens.
One reason those barbecued sausages may not be a good idea- apparently the high heat at which sausages and bacon are sometimes cooked aids the formation of nitrosamines.
And nitrites, and by association cured meats, are linked to the incidence of chronic pulmonary disease (though a conclusive causal relationship has not been established.
But there are also studies reported in scientific journals which say that nitrites may protect the stomach from ulcers; topical nitrite preparations are known to be effective in wound and burn healing; there are studies which indicate that nitrites may help improve recovery after a heart-attack (demonstrated so far only in animals), and there is some expectation that dietary supplementation of nitrites and their topical uses will be effective and inexpensive therapies to help decrease the incidence and severity of heart attack and stroke or enhance recovery.
Interestingly. vegetables have high levels of nitrates too. But the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says that someone on an average daily diet of fruit and vegetables is unlikely to consume a dangerous level of nitrates.
Whatever the truth of the matter, nitrates and nitrites certainly have a negative connotation and therefore some manufacturers have apparently begun to make “nitrite free” products though these often get around the problem by introducing nitrites in the meat through the use of additives such as celery and cane sugar juice,as well as selected types of salt, which are high in “natural” nitrate.
The other additive to look out for in sausages is E128, also known as Red 2G. It is banned in some countries such as Japan already and in 2007 the EFSA recommended that it cannot be considered safe for humans because it gets converted in to aniline in the body, which is a substance known in lab studies to cause cancer in animals.
Another risk, associated with eating salami and other raw sausages (found by a 2001 study done at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology) is that a bacterium in these foods, which is resistant to antibiotics (and which could be transferred to humans consuming these kinds of meats and other raw foods such as some kinds of cheese) can render consumers of such foods non-responsive to antibiotic treatment.
The source of this is the antibiotics that animals like cows are given in their food, and against which the animals gradually develop genes resistant to them.
(The scientists who carried out this study did intend to try and find out next if the same can happen through plant foods).
As for what goes in to making a sausage- many people’s reservations are related to the use of offal – “anything on the floor”, as some have said. (Offal is the term used to describe the entrails, internal organs and extremities of an animal – the parts that fall off when the carcass is butchered. For a detailed discussion on what exactly makes up offal, see http://www.offalgood.com/site/what-is-offal and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offal).
After reading those links, I quite understand how this would make some people squeamish, and certainly I won’t be looking at a sausage too fondly the next time ! For aficionados, though, and people who believe that it is a waste to not use all parts of an animal, I believe the saying goes “you can eat all of the pig except the squeal” (For an amusing read on one lady’s experience of eating the very popular French sausage called Andouillette, see http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/sally_peck/blog/2008/02/16/offal_rejection).
Of course, as with everything else, one can always make one’s own (http://homecooking.about.com/library/weekly/aa030298.htm).
The other option I guess would be to buy discerningly, from speciality sausage makers who promise only prime cuts of meat.
As for me, I guess I am going to err on the side of caution and continue to skip processed meat as much as possible, or I’ll start to think about what kind to buy and where. Those nitrites – especially the nitrosamines that they get converted in to – worry me and I think what Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) said may well hold true even today – “The less people know about how sausage and laws are made, the better they’ll sleep at night.”