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Is There Such a Thing As “Healthy Meat?”

Six ways to have your bacon (sort of) and eat it too

If my previous post put you off your sausages and bacon, I'm sorry. Let me make it up to you by telling you how you can enjoy delicious and healthy substitutes for mass-produced processed meats.

To some people, the phrase "healthy meat" is a contradiction in terms — especially when it comes to cold cuts and processed meats. True: cheap, poorly prepared meat can bear health risks: bacterial contamination, drug residues, excess sodium, preservatives, artificial flavorings and colorings and unhealthy fats, to name but a few. However, high-quality meat that is carefully prepared provides an array of vital nutrients, some of which are hard to obtain from plant sources.

So, if you want to be healthy and don't want to stop eating meat, I suggest you follow six basic rules:

Rule 1: Choose meat from healthy animals. If that sounds like a no-brainer, it isn't: much of the meat served in fast-food restaurants or mass-catered cafeterias, or sold at low cost in supermarkets, is obtained from the cheapest sources imaginable. Intensively reared animals are often treated with growth-enhancing drugs, kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions and fed foods they would never freely eat in the wild. (Can you imagine a cow voluntarily chomping on an ear of corn? Or wild salmon dashing for corn-and-soy pellets laced with petrochemical dyes?)

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Animal feeds high in omega-6-rich grains translate into meat, dairy and eggs that are also rich in this inflammatory and cancer-promoting fatty acid, and lower in the omega-3 fatty acids that protect us from inflammation and cancer.

Conversely, foods from animals that have ranged freely on pastures contain significant concentrations of healthy nutrients. In a 2009 comparison of grass-fed with grain-fed beef conducted by researchers from the US Department of Agriculture and Clemson University, grass-fed beef was found to be

  • Lower in total fat
  • Higher in antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin E
  • Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
  • Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
  • Higher in total omega-3 fatty acids
  • A healthier omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (1.65 in grass-fed beef versus 4.84 in grain fed)
  • Higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potential cancer fighter
  • Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA) 
  • Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease

Rule 2: Avoid processed meat that contains chemical additives. Healthy meat from pastured animals can be rendered unhealthy through processing — and that includes traditional salting or smoking methods. Thus even organic bologna luncheon meat is preserved with nitrites, and smoked pastured ham contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the smoking process (in addition to added nitrites). While nitrites aren't carcinogenic, they can be converted into cancer-promoting molecules in the gut. Meanwhile, PAHs are known carcinogens.

Processed meats can also contain carageenan, an additive used to substitute for fat, increase water retention and improve sliceability. Studies have found these to promote tumors in rodents. Small wonder, then, that the American Institute for Cancer Research/World Cancer Research Fund says we shouldn't eat processed meats at all.

Of course, humans have been salting and smoking meats for hundreds of years; lacking modern refrigeration techniques, they had little choice if they wanted to make their meat last. However, because meat and salt were precious commodities, our ancestors didn't eat large quantities of preserved meat; rather, they would use it as a condiment — adding complex and satisfying flavors to dishes -- rather than a major source of "meat". Let's follow their example. It's fine to add the occasional piece of high-quality cured ham or a smoked sausage to a vegetable stew for a satisfying wintry dish, but avoid eating large portions of heavily salted, smoked meats on a daily basis.

Incidentally, "veggie meat" is not always a healthy alternative. Most imitation meats contain at least as many additives as processed meats. For example, one randomly selected meatless bologna contains the following: isolated soy protein, vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed canola oil, evaporated cane juice [i.e. sugar], natural flavors (contains yeast extract), sea salt, autolyzed yeast, onion and garlic powder, vitamins & minerals (dipotassium phosphate, dimagnesium phosphate, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, calcium panthothenate, thiamin hydrochloride, cyanocobalamin, iron oxide), carrageenan [there it is!], wheat starch, beet powder (for color), citric acid, spice.

Rule 3: Reduce carcinogens through careful preparation. Flash-frying or char-grilling sausages and bacon can lead to the formation of carcinogenic compounds such as PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). (This applies also to fresh meat.) Instead, gently broil, bake, stew or even dry meat, as our ancestors have done for thousands of years. Modern culinary appliances such as crock pots and dehydrators can ease your workload considerably. If you must fry, let the meat marinate for a few hours in an herb-and/or-spice marinade, which can substantially reduce the formation of toxic by-products during cooking.

Rule 4: Eat meat in small quantities. Americans consume average of 8 oz (225g) of meat each day -- or nearly 200 pounds (90 kg) a year; that's nearly three times more than the AICR/WCRF recommends. Buying high-quality pastured meat will automatically curb your consumption because the cost of eating large amounts of meat would become prohibitive. And because pastured meat is likely to contain more nutrients than grain-fed, you can eat less of it and still get the nutrients you need.

Rule 5: Every time you eat meat -- processed or fresh -- have a salad and/or vegetables with it. It's not meat intake per se that's a problem, but the fact that most of us eat so few vegetables with our meat. Vegetables contain protective compounds that can counteract the potentially harmful effects of cooking. They also provide bulk, which means we feel full faster and are less inclined to fill up on meat. Moreover, leafy greens such as kale, broccoli or spinach are rich in calcium, which binds to the iron in meat that increases colorectal cancer risk; consider eating these, and other calcium-rich foods (e.g. pulses, seeds, yogurt), at the same meal as meat. Lastly, vegetables are a lot cheaper than meat, so with the money you save by eating lots of vegetables, you can afford to buy top-quality meat!

Rule 6: Make your own. In my next post, I'll show you a few of my favorite processed-meat substitutes: cold sliced herby chicken breast, veggie-rich meatballs, oven-roast marinated pork belly and spicy beef jerky. (Warning: home-made substitutes for processed meat don't taste quite like factory-made ones. But with a bit of persistence, you'll get used to their strangely natural, surprisingly tasty non-chemical flavor...)

Copyright Conner Middelmann-Whitney. Conner is a nutritionist, health writer and cooking instructor (check out her anti-cancer cooking videos on YouTube). She is the author of Zest for Life, The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, a cancer-prevention nutrition guide and cookbook anchored in the traditional Mediterranean diet. It is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and as an eBook on Kindle. For comments or questions, please contact her at conner@nutrelan.com.

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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