You may have seen the headlines ‘processed meat causes cancer’ and been concerned. As a parent our natural instinct is to protect our children so a headline like this causes anxiety. But what’s the problem with processed meat and what is it?
What is processed meat?
Processed meat is meat that has been through some sort of processing. Mince is not classified as a processed meat because it’s essentially just chopped up. Meats which have had something added in the processing are considered processed. Also meats which are preserved by curing, smoking or salting (some of these processes also involve adding ingredients).
Examples of processed meat?
Sausages, shop bought burgers, ham, salami, sandwich meat which is ‘formed’ from pieces of meat, frankfurters, chicken nuggets.
What’s in processed meat?
Processed meat has sodium chloride added to it (salt) and also sodium nitrite. Sodium chloride is added for flavour and as a preservative. Sodium nitrite helps keep meat pink, reduces the speed the fat in meat goes off and helps reduce bacterial growth – it’s therefore also a preservative.
It is the sodium nitrite that research suggests is the reason processed meat increases cancer risk. Sodium in whatever form is also known to increase blood pressure and too much can also affect the kidneys.
What are the recommendations around processed meat?
The NHS recommend adults who consume more than 90g of processed and red meat a day, limit it to 70g a day but the World Cancer Research Fund go as far as to say avoid all processed meat.
There are no specific recommendations for children however the School Food Standards do limit the number of times it should be put on the school menu.
Why these recommendations?
Research suggests that consuming large amounts of processed meats can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer. Some research suggests even a moderate intake can do this – hence the difference in recommendations.
Processed meat is also high in salt which, if consumed in large amounts could increase your risk of high blood pressure. As salt is an acquired taste, it is recommended that we try to avoid adding salt to foods so we get used to having less. This is particularly important in children. Little ones’ kidneys can’t cope with too much salt either.
There is also growing evidence that processed foods, not just processed meats, have an impact on satiety (our feeling of fullness) so we are more likely to overeat.
So should my child have processed meat?
A small amount is ok but we should aim to have as much unprocessed food as possible. Once a week is what I would limit it to for the over 2s. For the under 2s, because of the salt, I would recommend avoiding it completely. We don’t want our children to develop a taste for salt so limiting salt at the start is very important.
I don’t want you to feel guilty but, given there are so many good alternatives, it would be better to offer the more nutritious option.
What should I offer instead?
Marketing of children’s food is so often focussed on the highly processed foods so we could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t many options. Actually there are loads of options.
Here are a few which won’t cost too much:
Eggs – omelettes, scrambled eggs, soft boiled eggs are all quick and easy
Fish (there are loads of options here) – you can bread it yourself, have it from a tin (in spring water) or have it fresh.
Fresh chicken – if you buy the whole bird it’s often more cost effective. Drumsticks are also a good option although cut it off the bone for small children
Beans – kidney beans, chickpeas, cannelini beans – there are lots to try
Homemade burgers or meatballs or kebabs using mince – minced turkey, pork, lamb or beef
Ground nuts or nut butters (no added salt or sugar) – these can be stirred into other foods too. Over 5s can have whole nuts too.