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?

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    Please be aware that we can only give you the dictionary definition of processed food. In my experience, this is never the meaning of processed used by people who uphold the "eat fewer processed meats" theory. Their definition is heavily nutrition-related, so completely off-topic here. – rumtscho Nov 19 '13 at 22:20
  • really similar to : cooking.stackexchange.com/q/10860/67 (it's been rewritten, but I think much of it still applies) – Joe Nov 20 '13 at 2:29
  • There are no significant general health benefits of reducing sodium intake and most people absolutely do not overconsume according to their biology (not counting the hokum from the AHA and so on). Start your journey here – Aaronut Nov 20 '13 at 8:40
  • @Aaronut this is not a credible source and there is a widespread misinterpretation of these findings, such as in the link you cite. Please read the following letter from the AHA regarding the recent Hypertension publication. – AdamO Nov 20 '13 at 16:40
  • Did you read it? The abstract says absolutely nothing of consequence. And the site I quoted is far from being the only source to debunk their claims, it's just one that's well-written and easy to understand. I'm not going to debate this other than to say that the food agencies are not credible sources on this either. Oh, they're credible on things like food safety that are testable in a lab, but completely useless when it comes to health and nutrition. Unfortunately it takes a very long time for "conventional wisdom" to catch up with facts, which is why you still see low-sat-fat diets. – Aaronut Nov 20 '13 at 17:00

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:

  • Cooking
  • 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)
  • Freezing
  • 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.

  • In the past, we've been able to draw the line regarding certain health effects, for instance swapping some or all trans-fat margerine for lard & butter in baked goods is uniformly better for our health. There are indeed tradeoffs with certain preparation methods. For instance, boiling meat to render stock is an optimal way to extract supplemental nutrition otherwise inaccessible from raw eating. However, pan searing meat introduces carcinogenic compounds. I'm asking if there are known harmful agents produced by brining/curing/smoking and/or whether these are different from packaged meats. – AdamO Nov 19 '13 at 22:08
  • @ashkan All health claims are off topic for this site – SAJ14SAJ Nov 19 '13 at 22:11
  • fair enough. However, I think your definition of any cooking method being considered "processing" is too broad and inconsistent with how the term is used by others. Do you mean to say "processed" is a poorly defined term, absent of meaning? I'm generally curious what supplemental procedures happen with packaged, prepared meats that make them somehow different from what I would do if I replicated the process with whole ingredients. – AdamO Nov 20 '13 at 16:42
  • To process: "perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it." Cooking certainly meets that definition. A great majority of food is transformed or changed (that is to say, processed) before being eaten. Cooking is a process. Salting is a process. Slicing is a process. Trivially, butchering the animal instead of consuming it whole is a process. Don't let this word be usurped to mean somethign it doesn't like "bad for you." – SAJ14SAJ Nov 20 '13 at 16:44
  • You are also assuming that food processors do things you wouldn't at home. Sometimes they do and it is a good thing (like canning broth, which is hard to do at home safely), and sometimes they do and it is might be construed by some as less than ideal, and sometimes they don't. You cannot lump it all together. You need to look at each food by whatever your criteria are, and since those seem to be health related, they are hard to talk about on this site where that is off topic. I suggest you come to the chat... there we can talk about anything. – SAJ14SAJ Nov 20 '13 at 16:46

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.

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    Meat Product, bought ready-to-eat, is a good definition. It covers preservation and refinement techniques that some may find unappealing - adding nitrates in cured meats or extra animal fat or grain in sausages. It is a pretty broad field, tho, and may cover food no-one much has an issue with, such as plain beef jerky or low-sodium chicken stock. – RI Swamp Yankee Nov 20 '13 at 14:34
  • @RISwampYankee The point is that when someone is doing a study on it, they pick a definition. The study results are only valid for the definition they actually used. If they used a different definition, they may well have gotten different results. (And also, a lot of sausages are not ready-to-eat...) – derobert Nov 20 '13 at 14:47

To answer the question in context (avoiding processed meat), the AICR gives this definition:

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.

  • I have to downvote because health claims are off topic, and AICR is surely a health based organization (perhaps a reputable one, but still off topic for this site. We should not encourage, even implicitly, veiled health based questions. – SAJ14SAJ Nov 20 '13 at 17:47
  • Then downvote the question. The answer is on-topic, factually correct and cited. – RI Swamp Yankee Nov 20 '13 at 17:49
  • The answer is encouraging that type of question by citing that type of source. I have also now downvoted the question. – SAJ14SAJ Nov 20 '13 at 17:50
  • @SAJ14SAJ I edited the question significantly so as to hopefully encourage NPOV answers. I will also avoid participating in such discussion here on, albeit interesting to me for personal reasons. – AdamO Nov 20 '13 at 18:15
  • @ashkan Try Seasoned Advice Chat for discussion - comments aren't even a good place for on-topic discussion. – Cascabel Nov 20 '13 at 18:26

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.

  • How is country ham or bacon forced through an opening? – SAJ14SAJ Nov 20 '13 at 15:25
  • The gap between the slicer blade and backplate, mister. Blast from the past for you, no? – MandoMando Nov 20 '13 at 15:29
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    So its not processed if you cut it on a cutting board with a knife instead? – SAJ14SAJ Nov 20 '13 at 15:36
  • Country hams is same category as prosciutto. You can argue about Bacon when people cut their bacon in thin slices on the cutting board every day. – MandoMando Nov 20 '13 at 15:46
  • @MandoMando Your definition includes mince or ground meat which, when ground freshly, sees nary a nitrate, iota of sodium, nor any other preservative. Myself and probably many others would consider ground beef not processed. – AdamO Nov 20 '13 at 16:44

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