This is the question that we need to start asking ourselves when we walk through the grocery aisle, order in a restaurant, and particularly when we feed our children. More data emerges every day which challenges our previous notions of the relative significance of particular fats or micro nutrients. Doctors and nutritionists are focusing more on how our food is made.
Processed food contains high amounts of salt, nitrates and other chemicals used as preservatives and flavor enhancers – most of which the typical person knows little or nothing about.
While this is old news, recent data is emerging that suggests that the processing may pose more of a health risk than previously recognized. A few months ago, I blogged about a study that suggested that saturated fat intake was not clearly associated with future risk of heart disease – this research contradicts some of our commonly shared recommendations, and has forced the American Heart Association and other organizations to seriously rethink not only our recommendations, but how we come to arrive at them. Common wisdom is taking an appropriate backseat to research.
So I was excited to read about a more recent study which tries to tease apart why foods high in saturated fat would appear to be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Harvard researchers examined the results of 20 different studies involving 1.2 million people. They found that eating unprocessed meat (think steak or unprocessed pork or lamb) was not associated with any increased risk of heart disease, but eating processed meats (like cold cuts, sausage and bacon) was linked to a 42% increased risk of heart disease and 19% increased risk of diabetes. They specifically looked at the saturated fat content between the unprocessed and processed meats, and didn’t find much of a difference.
But nitrates and salt might account for some of the disparity. All it took was a typical serving a day (like a hot dog, or some sliced cold cuts in a sandwich) to reach this risk. When you consider the number of people who have bacon for breakfast most days of the week or have a ham sandwich for lunch every day, the impact of processing is impressive. The authors of the study also make the point that unprocessed meat may also have other noncardiac health risks, such as colorectal cancer and other malignancies.
Many Americans tend to accept processing, antibiotics and hormones in their food without much of a fight – these additives may make our food more flavorful, and likely cheaper as well. But it seems as though processing may come at a price – an increased risk of heart disease. You can take some steps to reduce your risk by avoiding bacon, sausage and deli meats, and try to focus on eating real food.
Are you concerned about how eating processed foods affects your health? Comment on this post on the Heart Disease Community.