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Dishing on Meat

Posted by bmagnus On May - 19 - 2010

For anybody who loves a good steak — or who just isn’t ready for Meatless Mondays let alone a vegetarian lifestyle — we have two great studies and just a little bit of bad news.

Conventional wisdom for some years has been that red meat is bad for you because it is loaded with saturated fat. The problem is that the actual studies on which that idea is based are at best conflicted: some show no correlation, while others show a clear pattern. This latest study tried to isolate just a few of the many factors that might be at work in this problem.

Harvard researchers looked at what kind of meat people were eating. Not just “beef, chicken, or pork?” but how it was prepared. Their conclusion was “Consumption of processed meats, but not red meats, is associated with higher incidence of CHD [Coronary Heart Disease] and diabetes mellitus. These results highlight the need for better understanding of potential mechanisms of effects and for particular focus on processed meats for dietary and policy recommendations.” After examining many other studies, they found that just 50 grams of processed meats such as salami, hot dogs, or deli meats daily meant a 42% increased risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of developing diabetes. 50 grams is a little less than 2 ounces, just 1/8 of a pound.

What is it in those processed meats that makes them that much more risky? Some experts insist it’s the fact that processed meats almost always have lots of salt. Salt is a traditional curing agent, and a heavy component of sausages and many processed foods in general. Despite the fact that this study mostly vindicates saturated fat, some of those same experts point to the fat content of these foods. It is worth considering that the processed meats in question are often smoked, and often contain nitrites. Since all the products considered by this study contained chemical preservatives, this factor too must be considered.

Curing agents, rubs, and marinades also often contain sugar, and many deli meats (turkey in particular) have added sugars. Obviously, a diet high in added sugars is associated with obesity, high cholesterol, and a variety of other problems. Obesity being a risk factor for both heart disease and diabetes, the sugar issue cannot be discounted in this study. The research team was right on target by pointing out that we need a better understanding of what’s going on and why.

A second unrelated study shows that judicious spicing of meat can reduce cancer risk. When meat is cooked at a high temperature, carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines — or HCAs for short — form. Part of ongoing research, they’ve found that some rosemary extracts can reduce HCAs by up to 79% and some Thai spice blends can inhibit HCA formation by up to 43%.

Once again, it boils down to eating the least processed food available to you and using spices judiciously for both flavor and health.

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