7 Crucial Safety Facts You Must Know About Cured Meats

Cured meats contain preservatives like nitrates, linked to cancer risk. High sodium content poses heart disease risks. Obesity risk from high fats. Proper handling crucial to prevent foodborne illness.

Cured meat platter of traditional Spanish tapas - chorizo, salsichon, jamon serrano, lomo - erved on wooden board with olives and bread

The allure of cured meats – from the robust flavors of prosciutto and salami to the comforting taste of bacon – is undeniable. Despite their deliciousness, there’s a growing concern about their health impacts, particularly cancer risk, heart disease, and obesity. In this blog post, we’ll explore seven crucial safety facts you need to know about cured meats.

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1. Preservatives in Cured Meats

Slices of spicy dry-cured meat with rosemary in a paper bag on an old brown background. Cpoy space.

Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that serve as key preservatives in many cured meats. They help inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, thereby extending the shelf life of these products. However, when consumed, nitrates and nitrites can contribute to the formation of potentially carcinogenic substances known as N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs).

Preservatives like nitrates and nitrites do more than just extend the life of cured meats. They also impart that characteristic pinkish color and add a distinct flavor. But while they make these foods more appealing, they can also have significant health implications. For instance, consumption of nitrate or nitrite-preserved meats can lead to an increased intake of NOCs, which have been linked to various forms of cancer.

2. Cured Meats and Cancer Risk

Chef cutting dry-cured spanish ham Jamon.

A substantial body of research has found a connection between the consumption of processed meats and an elevated risk of cancer. The World Health Organization classified all processed meats as carcinogens in 2015. This includes popular choices like bacon, sausages, ham, and cured meats such as prosciutto and salami.

The link between cured meats and cancer is largely attributed to the presence of carcinogenic substances formed during the processing and cooking of these meats. As we mentioned earlier, nitrates and nitrites can form NOCs. Additionally, methods like smoking or high-temperature cooking can lead to the formation of other carcinogenic chemicals, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs).

3. High Sodium Content in Cured Meats

Salt is a fundamental ingredient in the curing process, playing a crucial role in preserving meat and enhancing its flavor. However, this results in high sodium content in cured meats, which can pose health risks if consumed excessively.

High sodium intake is linked with various health concerns, including high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Therefore, while you might enjoy the taste of cured meats, it’s important to be aware of your overall sodium intake to maintain a balanced diet and protect your heart health.

As Edwards Virginia Smokehouse explains in the video –

  1. Pink salt contains 6.25% sodium nitrite and helps cure meat quickly, while sodium nitrate cures meat slowly over a longer period.
  2. For bacon, a tiny amount of pink salt is used to cure it quickly in just 7 days. For hams, sodium nitrate is used since the 30+ day curing process allows for slow release.
  3. The amount of curing salt to use depends on the meat’s weight, the curing method (brine, dry cure, etc.), and the type of meat. Following package directions can be confusing.
  4. For dry cured hams, about 3.5 oz of sodium nitrate per 100 lbs of meat is used along with 8-10 lbs of salt per 100 lbs of meat.
  5. The saltiness and amount absorbed is controlled by the size of the ham and number of days spent curing, not necessarily the amount of salt used.
  6. Allberger flake salt is recommended as it absorbs best into the meat without caking or rolling off. Granulated salt can taste saltier.
  7. Mediterranean sea salt naturally contains sodium nitrate but the amount is inconsistent, so the curing process is less controlled.
  8. Curing salt helps prevent botulism and microbes, while the color change and flavor are secondary effects. It improves safety.
  9. Grinding meat increases surface area and bacteria risk, so cured sausages may need more curing salt than whole muscle cuts.
  10. Resources from Virginia Tech provide detailed information on carefully curing meat at home.
Edwards Virginia Smokehouse

4. The Smoking Process of Meats

The smoking process serves two primary purposes in meat preparation: flavor infusion and preservation. Smoking imparts a distinct, rich flavor to meats, which many find irresistible. It also aids in preservation by reducing moisture and creating an environment where bacteria cannot thrive.

Despite the benefits of taste and preservation, smoked meats might pose some health risks. Smoke contains PAHs, which are potential carcinogens. When meat is smoked, these compounds can adhere to its surface, thereby increasing the consumer’s exposure to these potentially harmful substances.

5. Heart Disease and Cured Meats

Dry-cured sausage with thyme, onion, garlic and pepper. Sausage with bread and spices on a old wooden table.

Several studies have pointed to a link between the consumption of cured meats and heart disease. This association may be due to the high levels of sodium and unhealthy fats in many cured meats, which can contribute to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels – both risk factors for heart disease.

If you’re a fan of cured meats, don’t despair. You can still enjoy your favorite foods while taking care of your heart health. Consider opting for nitrite-free options when available, limit your portion sizes, and balance your meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also, keep an eye on your overall sodium intake, aiming to stay within recommended daily limits.

6. Obesity and Cured Meat Consumption

curated meats prosciutto coppa pancetta delicatessen at event , italian food catering in private event

Cured meats are often high in unhealthy fats and calories, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity when consumed in excess. Obesity is a risk factor for numerous health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

It’s all about balance and moderation. While cured meats can be part of a balanced diet, they shouldn’t be the star of every meal. Pair them with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Additionally, consider portion sizes and opt for leaner cuts whenever possible.

7. Cured Meats and Foodborne Illness

Stripy cured pork side bacon pancetta smoked on wood chip.

Proper curing and storage practices are crucial in preventing foodborne illnesses. Always ensure that your cured meats are stored at the correct temperature and consumed before their expiration date. Likewise, if you’re curing meats at home, follow all safety guidelines to prevent bacterial contamination.

Improperly cured meats may have an off smell, slimy texture, or discoloration. If you notice any of these signs, it’s best to discard the meat and avoid consumption to prevent potential foodborne illness.

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