Updated: Jun 6
Processed meat is a food that I find is not often talked about in infant or childhood nutrition guidelines (or not talked about enough) and I am yet to find a child who doesn't like processed meat; I mean what is not to like, it's easy to chew, salty and quick. But what are the current recommendations and should we include processed meat in our children's diets?
Processed meat is any meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes; this includes hot dogs, ham, salami, fritz (devon), prosciutto as well as canned meat. Processed meat may be cured with the addition of preservatives (salt, nitrite, or smoke) and/or other additives (phosphate, glutamate, or ascorbic acid).
Meat processing such as curing (e.g. by adding nitrates or nitrites) or smoking can lead to the formation of cancer-causing (carcinogenic) chemicals.
The two main carcinogenic compounds that can be formed from consuming nitrates/nitrites are:
-Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).
World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that the consumption of processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans" (group 1 carcinogen). This statement is based on over 800 studies evaluated by 22 scientists from ten countries. Conclusions were primarily based on the evidence for colorectal cancer, but data also showed positive associations between processed meat consumption and stomach cancer. The report showed that each 50g of processed meat consumed per day by an adult (2 slices of bacon or 1 hot dog), increases colorectal cancer risk by 18%. This estimate is in relation to cancer deaths only, however, it is also well known that besides increasing the risk of some cancers, processed meat intake can also increase the risk of other chronic and potentially life-threatening diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes. There has been a lot of mixed reporting of the IARC outcome, with some claiming that overall individual risk from eating processed meat is only increased by 1%, however, any increase in risk can make a difference from a population perspective. Bowel Cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in Australia. (https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/bowel-cancer)
So what are the current recommendations for processed meat consumption for children?
- The Australian Cancer Council recommends "avoiding ALL processed meats such as frankfurts, salami, bacon, and ham".
- The Australian Dietary Guidelines for children recommend "limiting consumption of foods high in saturated fat, including pies, processed meats, and commercial burgers, among other foods."
-The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has a policy statement that states "There is a concern for the risk of gastrointestinal or neural cancer from the ingestion of nitrates and nitrites from processed meats in children and that high maternal intake of nitrite-cured meats has also been linked to an increased risk of childhood brain tumors in offspring". Nitrates, like perchlorate, can also disrupt thyroid function interfering with iodine uptake
So why is processed meat served in schools? why does it not come with a warning on the packet similar to cigarettes (also a group 1 carcinogen)? All questions we don't have the answer to yet, but certainly where possible it would make sense to limit it.
The other aspect to consider is that processed meats are very high in sodium; ham is 1250mg/100g, salami is around 1800mg/100g, and a hot dog is 770mg/100g. Processed meats for this reason alone are best avoided for babies under 12 months of age.
I have to admit that my kids really like processed meat, especially ham and pineapple pizza, and I do love to cook Christmas ham. However, overall, it is a food that we consciously avoid and eliminate whenever possible in our children's diet.
So what are the alternatives especially when it comes to school lunches and sandwich fillings:
- try cheese slices or cream cheese
- tinned tuna and salmon
- leftover meats such as roast chicken
- Hard-boiled eggs
- veggie burgers