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Does Lunchmeat Really Cause Cancer?

If you haven't heard the news...

...The World Health Organization has now declared processed meats:

“carcinogenic to humans.”



And, what exactly is a processed meat?

Processed meats are meats that have been preserved by smoking, curing, fermenting or salting, often (but not always) including sodium nitrates.  These meats are processed in order to enhance flavors or improve preservation.  Examples include bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, jerky and brace yourself…even sliced turkey and many of the “fresh sliced” lunch meats from the display case or deli counter at your local grocery store!

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified these downright beloved, highly convenient and tasty meats as “Group 1” (carcinogenic to humans)…this is the same category that applies to asbestos, tobacco products, and other carcinogens!  What is most concerning is colon cancer rates are rising, with researchers predicting that by 2030 the colon cancer rates among those 20-34 years old will increase by 90% for colon cancer and by 124% for rectal cancer!


What makes processed meats carcinogenic?

Scientists are still trying to determine the exact cause.  Most experts are focusing on sodium nitrate, which is often used when processing meats to protect us from bacteria that can cause food-born illness.

The problem is that, when in the acidic environment of your stomach, some of the nitrate is converted into nitrite.  When these nitrites bind with proteins, they are converted into nitrosamine, which is a known carcinogen.  Exposing your body to nitrosamines over time is part of what increases your risk for cancer.


Is there an amount that is safe?

Once you recover from equal parts of denial and disbelief, you may be wondering, but “how much is safe?”  This is a great question.  Studies show that the serving size of a typical hot dog, or 2 slices of bacon, or 2 slices of lunchmeat, eaten daily, increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

It has been estimated that as many as 49,700 cases of colorectal cancer per year in the US could be prevented by avoiding or reducing the intake of processed meat.  The American Institute for Cancer Research quotes a study that states those who eat 3.5 ounces of processed meat daily experienced increased colorectal cancer risk by 36% compared to those who don’t eat any processed meat at all.

You may be thinking “what a relief…I don’t eat processed meats that often…I only have a couple slices of bacon on the weekend.”

Then you realize all the other processed meats that sneak in throughout the week…the turkey sandwiches, the cobb salad, the beef jerky for a high-protein snack, not to mention the school lunch menu which affirms our society is hooked on processed meats.  Suddenly, your sense of pride coming from your decision to replace the pepperoni with leaner Canadian bacon on your pizzas is dashed by the realization that processed meats are everywhere…and they can quickly sneak into your daily routine when you are not paying attention!


What about red meat?

Red meat is unprocessed meat that is red in color when raw.  Beef, pork and lamb are common types of red meat.  While processed meats are categorized as “Group 1” (carcinogenic to humans), red meat is categorized as “Group 2A” (probably carcinogenic to humans).  So, there is risk to red meat too.  But, this risk should be weighed against the nutrients that red meat provides including iron, zinc, B vitamins and omega-3s.


So, what are we supposed to do?

The experts give no guidance on a safe amount of processed meats.  They simply state, “avoid processed meat.”  They also say, “limit red meat” and provide a safe limit of 18 ounces per week.

Don’t let this send you into a panic attack!

We’re here to help you rescue breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks from the “routine processed meat choices” many of us have been making unconsciously for years.  These suggestions will help wean you and your family deliciously off processed meats, while keeping red meat to the recommended limit as well.

Keep in mind, there is no downside to avoiding processed meats.  But, if you are thinking “this just isn’t realistic for me,” it may help to know the American Institute for Cancer Research states, “If you are making healthy choices most of the time and avoiding processed meats, occasionally eating a hot dog at a baseball game or a piece of ham on a holiday is unlikely to be harmful.”

In fact, you will notice we have recipes on Eat REAL America that include meats such as bacon and ham, but it is less than 4% of all our recipes (with over 1,000 recipes, that’s very moderate!).  Plus, it’s important to realize that a little goes a long way!  For example, two slices of bacon crumbled over your salad (occasionally!) can add a ton of flavor for as many as four people.  And, we always balance these meats with lots of nutrient-rich REAL FOOD!

Here are some other tips to help keep you and your family happy and healthy:




  • Load eggs with veggies!  Add pizzazz to your morning eggs by adding spinach, onions, peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, and sweet potatoes.  This habit can revolutionize how you do breakfast — try the Sweet Potato Kale Frittata or, for busy mornings, the Mini Frittatas are ideal!


  • Read the label!  Occasionally, when you "just gotta have" a breakfast meat, read the label for fresh sausage seasoned only with spices (and not sodium nitrates).


  • Bacon flavor!  As the Mediterraneans know, for a great bacon substitute, chop up some Kalamata Greek olives and sauté them in olive oil…they add fantastic flavor and you may not even miss the bacon. Try one of our member favorites...Brussels Sprouts Hash!




  • Trade it out!  Trade processed lunch meats for canned tuna, salmon, and chicken, or make egg salad.



  • Year-round turkey day!  Who says you can only cook a turkey at Thanksgiving?!  Sliced turkey meat freezes beautifully and can provide weeks of delicious lunches!




  • Better choice!  For those times when you “just gotta have convenient lunch meat,” choose nitrate-free meat.   (But only occasionally, since it is not known if these are actually less risky.)


  • Keep it simple!  And, there is always the simple PB&J...or try a peanut butter and banana wrap!




  • Star of the show.  Instead of thinking about the meat first when meal planning, make veggies the focus of the meal, and then consider what meat (about a 3-ounce portion) would be good for the supporting role.  This is a much better approach than always making the meat the star, and then throwing a veggie on the table as an afterthought.


  • Better for you pizza!  Instead of the traditional pepperoni or ham, load up your pizzas with mushrooms, peppers, onions, broccoli, pineapple, shredded chicken, lean hamburger or pork. 


  • Grill the good stuff!  Grill a variety of meats such as chicken, pork tenderloin, salmon, shrimp and lean hamburgers.


  • Trade in your ham for pulled pork!


  • Still love hot dogs?  Instead, look for nitrate free sausages, that contain spices only.  There are several good brands, often labeled as “all natural," but it is still important to read the ingredients.   Keep in mind, they are still high in sodium, but can be a healthful replacement if used only occasionally.


  • Meatless meals.  Believe it or not, we don’t need meat with every single meal.  Try committing two nights each week for meatless meals…mastering the art of making a meatless meal is empowering, and absolutely delicious!  Fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and other REAL food provide the nutrients our bodies need.  Ideas such as Harvest Tacos, Surprise Spaghetti Bolognese, and Veggie Noodle Bowl are perfect examples of how filling and incredibly good meatless can be!



No matter where you and your family are on your REAL food journey, we hope you find our approach to processed meats sensible and practical.  Once you realize how much processed meats are lurking in your meals, we hope you accept the challenge and start trying creative options to ease them out of your meals as much as possible and enjoy them in moderation.

Please share with us…what have you done to limit processed meats in your meals?

Take this AICR quiz to find out how much you know about processed meat!




Leave A Comment

4 Responses to Does Lunchmeat Really Cause Cancer?

  1. Again, all great info!! I am happy to report w/ Hyatt’s Food. Thoughtfully Served and Carefully Served platform, we only use Nitrate and Nitrite free bacon, all natural porkloin, and hot dogs. The product is out there and available on the market.

  2. Thanks great article – also thinking natural cured Italian pancetta could be a good choice for frittatas – have you ever used it?

    • We have occasionally used pancetta or bacon in frittatas and had good results, but another excellent less processed option would be to make and use our Homemade Turkey Sausage — we love to make up a batch and freeze it in patties or links that make it ready to grab and cook. We would love for you to try it and see what you think – thanks!

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