There is inconsistent terminology surrounding what is considered "processed meat". Some take any meat that has been smoked, cured, or possibly dried to be "processed", while others are consider "deli meats" that have added preservatives (nitrates, eg) for longer shelf-life, stability, and color to be processed. Can someone clarify what is a "processed meat" in the context of dietary health recommendations for reduced intake as well as any other contexts in which "processed meat" is a term that is frequently used?
Despite the fashion of using "processed" as if it is a derogatory term, and processed foods are dangerous, almost all foods are processed in some way(s). Most of us, for example, do not chew wheat berries directly off the stalks, but prefer them threshed, hulled, ground into flour, and then baked into breads or other foods. What is that, if not processing?
Of course, cooking itself is a form of processing, since most of us no longer eat our meat raw from the carcass.
There are a number of common ways that meat is processed, after being butchered, some of which are more extreme than others. Some foods have several of these processes applied. Among the more common are:
- Grinding (as in hamburger, and many sausages)
- Curing with salt or other curing agents (as in bacon)
- Canning (as in the infamous Spam, or Vienna sausages)
- Drying or dehydrating (jerky)
- Pickling (pickled pigs feet)
- Smoking (which is often combined with curing, cooking, or drying, such as Virginia ham)
- Injection of brine or other flavorings or enhancements (many ham products)
I don't think there is any universal measure by which you can consider processing good or bad. You have to consider each within the context of the particular food product, and its outcome.
What "processed meat" includes exactly is going to depend on who is talking about it. Thankfully, reputable sources of health claims ultimately go back to various studies, which will define what they mean by the term. For example, Meat consumption and mortality - results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition explains how they classify meats:
For this analysis, meats were grouped into red meat (beef, pork, mutton/lamb, horse, goat), processed meat (all meat products, including ham, bacon, sausages; small part of minced meat that has been bought as a ready-to-eat product) and white meat (poultry, including chicken, hen, turkey, duck, goose, unclassified poultry, and rabbit (domestic)). Processed meat mainly refers to processed red meat but may contain small amounts of processed white meat as well, for example, in sausages.
So, their definition is broader than preserved meats. Other studies may use different definitions; best to check each one.
What do we mean by “processed meat”?
AICR/WCRF expert report and its updates defines processed meat as “meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.” Ham, bacon, pastrami, sausages, hot dogs and luncheon meats are all considered processed meat.
The Australian Government has a somewhat broader definition -
Under the Food Standards Code ... processed meat is defined as a meat product containing no less than 300g/kg meat, where meat either singly or in combination with other ingredients or additives, has undergone a method of processing other than boning, slicing, dicing, mincing or freezing, and includes manufactured meat and cured and/or dried meat flesh in whole cuts or pieces.
A simple way to think about is: any meat that has been forced/pumped through an opening. This covers hams, sausages, bacon, etc. Notice that Smoked Salmon, or Proscuitto are left out. Generally 'Processed' refers to mechanical or chemical processing of meat.
Your local indie butcher's meat is better because he loses in the game of numbers and you win.
- He/she processes a couple of animals a day and doesn't have access to enough filler meat to make a whole product line out of it.
- The big plant processes some 300 animals per hour. So your piece of ham can come from 1000 or so different animals and your odds of seeing animal disease are magnitudes higher than your local butcher. For this reason, meat plants have very aggressive plans to counter the risk with chemicals.
- Your local butcher most likely doesn't even know what the term bliss-point means, let alone gaming your brain for salt, sugar and fat bliss points. The branded processed meat will almost certainly have more of those three.
As an aside: most processed meats contain nitrites which some consider unhealthy. See the wiki article about this food additive. You may find other ailments controversially attributed to it as well if you look around the net.