Ham, sausage, charcuterie: a major health risk

Deli meats are popular foods due to their low cost and ease of use. However, these are foods that are dangerous to health, because big fans of sausages, bacon, smoked meat or ham have up to 45% more risk of dying prematurely.

The preparation of meat in the form of cured meats dates back to antiquity, this technique being used to increase the shelf life of meats in the absence of refrigeration.

The Greeks and Romans, for example, filled the viscera or stomachs of animals with fat and finely chopped pieces of meat, to which they added salt, spices and aromatics as preservatives.

The presence of large quantities of salt is particularly important, because this condiment partially dehydrates the meat and thus reduces the humidity conducive to the proliferation of pathogens. Moreover, the word “sausage” comes from the Latin “salsus” meaning “salty”.

The danger of nitrites and nitrates very present in charcuterie

Nowadays, most deli meats contain, in addition to salt, nitrites and nitrates as preservatives. Discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, these substances are very effective against bacteria (especially those that cause botulism) and give meats a more attractive pink color by reducing the oxidation of iron atoms.

These nitrites and nitrates are, however, transformed in the stomach into N-nitroso compounds, a class of very carcinogenic substances due to their property of causing mutations in DNA.

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Several studies have also shown that the high consumption of red meats, and particularly deli meats, was associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, in particular those of the colon, stomach, pancreas and breast.

Although they occupy a large place in dietary habits, deli meats are far from being harmless foods: they are very fatty meats, which contain preservatives with a high carcinogenic potential and which can therefore have very adverse effects on health.

One sausage a day and the risk of premature death increases

By analyzing the lifestyle habits of nearly 450,000 people between the ages of 35 and 69, an international team of researchers concluded that participants who ate more than 40 g of cold cuts per day (the equivalent of a single sausage) had a significantly higher risk of mortality than those who ate less than 20 g daily.

This effect is particularly pronounced in people who eat 160 grams or more of deli meats: the risk of mortality is then 45% higher, a consequence of an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. In practice, it is estimated that approximately 3% of premature mortality could be avoided if the population consumed less than 20 g of cold cuts per day.

Alternative sources of protein

Deli meats are truly bad foods because eating them on a regular basis causes more harm than health benefits. To consume as little of these foods as possible, try to integrate other sources of protein into your eating habits: for lunch, for example, a legume salad or a can of sardines can replace a ham sandwich, both to the point of view of taste than cost.

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Rohrmann et al. Meat consumption and mortality – Results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. BMC Medicine 11:63


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