Hot dogs, deli meat, chicken, oh my. Which processed meat is the worst for you?

Eating meat has some well-known health benefits, such as being a good source of fatty acids and nutrients such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. But all meats are not equal. Red meat, for example, has the advantage of being an excellent source of high-quality protein; However, it is consumed too often and has been linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Other meats require similar risk-benefit considerations, especially when the studied negatives outweigh the positives.

What is processed meat?

Although many people think of processed meat as food that has gone through some sort of mechanical process, such as putting beef through a grinder to turn it into hamburger meat, this is not the case. “When fresh, ground beef or chicken is not considered processed meat,” explains Dr. Donald Hensrud, associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic and editor of the Mayo Clinic Diet.

Instead, processed meat is meat that has been modified to either extend its shelf life or improve its flavor, such as when it has been fermented, cured, or smoked. Processed meat also includes those where “chemical preservatives have been added to it,” says Kirson Petruzzi, M.D., a registered dietitian at the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic. “Bacon, hot dogs, spicy and prepackaged deli meats are some examples,” he says.

As a general rule, processed meat is meat that is not fresh, but meat that is unaltered and fresh frozen to be served later is still considered raw.

What is the healthiest processed meat?

In the world of processed meats, some are believed to be healthier than others because “some processed meats have greater health risks than others, depending on the type of meat and the degree of processing,” Hensrud notes. Because red meat already has significantly more potential negative health effects than fish or chicken, for example, its processed version is often considered worse than the processed version of many other meats. But experts stress that no research conclusively shows this any processed meat has no health problems.

Should I stop eating processed meat?

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans”. This means that “research can confidently conclude that it does cause cancer,” says Petruzzi. For many people, that information alone is enough to keep them from eating processed meat at all. But because the WHO does not specify how much of a carcinogen must be consumed before cancer-causing levels are reached, some people choose to continue eating processed meat, although perhaps less often than before the cancer link became known.

In addition to being linked to an increased risk of cancer, processed meats are also linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and are linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. “For some conditions, like type 2 diabetes and colon cancer, the risk of eating processed meat is almost double the risk of eating red meat, and red meat is already a concern,” says Hensrud.

Because of such factors, experts recommend fresh meat options, such as poultry or especially fish, over processed meats. Other healthier alternatives to processed meats that are still good sources of protein include eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, and many nuts and seeds such as cashews, walnuts, almonds, macadamias, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. And when you’re looking for good meat options to use as pizza toppings or sandwich fixings, Petruzzi recommends cutting up fresh meat at home rather than using popular processed meats like prepackaged deli meats or sausage and pepperoni. “There are absolutely some healthier alternatives to processed meats that can be an integral part of a balanced diet,” she says.

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