What is processed meat and why should you worry?

Woman chooses a slice of pork meat in vacuum package at the grocery store

As part of Cancer Prevention Action Week 2023, we’re encouraging people to eat less processed meat and choose something healthier. Ditch and switch!

You may be wondering why it’s a good idea to avoid eating processed meat – and what processed meat is anyway.

What is processed meat?

Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding artificial preservatives. If that still doesn’t clear things up for you, then here’s a list of things that many of us eat without necessarily realising that it’s processed:

  • sausages and hot dogs
  • bacon
  • ham
  • deli meats such as pepperoni, salami and chorizo
  • pâté
  • canned meat such as corned beef and Spam
  • sliced luncheon meats
  • sliced chicken or turkey

Mince and burgers aren’t included in this list because they don’t contain the same harmful preservatives.

> Download our free processed meat factsheet (PDF)

Why is processed meat bad for you?

If you enjoy any of those types of meat, then here’s the bad news. There’s strong evidence that eating it increases your risk of cancer.

There are four reasons for this:

1. Nitrates and nitrites

The chemicals that are used to produce processed meat are a red flag against eating it.

You may have heard of nitrites and nitrates: they are commonly added preservatives that help to prolong shelf life, suppress harmful bacteria and stop meat changing colour to something less appealing and recognisable.

Although nitrites and nitrates are also found naturally in many plants, it’s the way that these artificial chemicals react with your body that’s the problem. They’ve been shown to produce chemicals that can damage your DNA, which then increases your risk of bowel cancer.

“It’s not so much nitrates/nitrites per se that are carcinogenic, but the way they are cooked and their local environment that is an important factor,” says Kate Allen, our Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs.

“For example, nitrites in processed meats are in close proximity to proteins, specifically amino acids. When cooked at high temperatures this allows them to more easily form nitrosamines, the cancer-causing compound.”

2. Haem

Most processed meat is a form of red meat – beef, pork and lamb – and red meat contains a substance called haem, which gives it its colour. Haem can trigger the formation of cancer-causing compounds which have been shown to damage the lining of the bowel, and can cause bowel cancer.

How does this happen? It may be because of the amount of time meat is sitting in parts of the body. Food quickly passes through your mouth, down to the stomach and then spends the longest amount of time in the colon.

3. Saturated fat

Many of the above types of processed meat contain high levels of fat, particularly saturated fat. Too much is bad for your health. Excess saturated fat, especially, leads to weight gain, which is a major risk factor for cancer.

4. Cooking at high temperatures

We cook many types of processed meat at high temperatures (think crispy bacon or barbecued sausages) and this method increases the risk of bowel cancer.

Cooking processed meat at a high temperature produces a variety of chemicals that can damage the cells of the bowel.

What’s the risk level?

Global research shows that – on average – people who regularly eat processed meat have a 16% increased risk of developing bowel cancer for every 50g that they eat, compared with those who do not eat processed meat. 50g works out at about 3 rashers of bacon, 2 slices of ham, or 1 sausage.

The damage caused by eating processed meat builds up over time and the more processed meat you eat, the greater the risk of cells within the bowel being damaged and cancer developing.

> Almost half of Brits unaware that eating processed meat could increase their level of bowel cancer

What can I eat instead?

It’s not possible to show an individual’s risk of cancer, but to help reduce the likelihood of a bowel cancer diagnosis, we recommend you reduce the amount of processed meat you eat, and ideally remove it from your diet completely.

If you still want to eat meat, then stick with white meat (chicken, turkey and other poultry, and rabbit) and try to up your fish intake.

Join the Great British Sarnie Swap!

We know that it’s in sandwiches that many of us eat processed meat, so we’re encouraging you to start there. We’ve come up with lots of ideas that you may want to try instead of ham, bacon or sausage.

We’ve tried and tested lots of amazing fillings to find something that will be just as tasty as the processed meat you may be used to – but with none of the health risks. You can do wonders with prawns, chicken, cheese or houmous and you’ll have lunch “wrapped” up in no time!

What about … a fish finger bap, an ELT (yep, that’s Egg, Lettuce and Tomato), or a chicken and sweetcorn wrap?

> Try one of our sarnie swaps today

And if you want to swap out processed meat entirely, look no further than our recipes site, which has more than 350 healthy recipes that are all completely free from processed meat!