Chorizo, bacon, salami: Ditch it
We put ham in our sandwiches and chorizo in pasta. There's peperoni on the Friday night pizza, sausages at Saturday morning soccer and bacon with Sunday's big breakfast.
These ingredients all come under the heading of processed meat, a food that's looking a bit on the nose. In March we heard that a large study of 448,568 people - from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition known as EPIC - had linked a high consumption of processed meat to early deaths from heart disease and cancer, while in February a review of 26 earlier studies into red and processed meat and bowel cancer confirmed that a high intake of these foods increased the risk of the disease.
Although previous studies have also pointed the finger at processed meat, there's still no research nailing this food as an outright cause of cancer or anything else. But the evidence of an association is strong enough for the World Cancer Research Fund to estimate that around 10 per cent of bowel cancer is linked to processed meat, says Kathy Chapman, Director of Health Strategies at Cancer Council NSW, Australia.
"Although there are also associations between high intakes of red meat and bowel cancer, with lean red meat you can argue that it's a good source of iron, zinc, protein and B vitamins - but processed meat isn't a carrier of good nutrition," she says.
So what is it about processed meat that could be a problem? Or is it less about the meat itself and more that diets big on bacon and sausage are a marker for less healthy diets generally?
The recent EPIC study suggests that it's the meat itself rather than other lifestyle factors, Chapman says. The difference with processed meat is that unlike unprocessed meat - chops, steaks, roasts and mince - processed meat is cured with the use of preservatives like salt, nitrates and smoking. It's nitrates that are the suspects here.
"In laboratory studies they've been found to cause cancerous changes in cells but we don't know for sure if this is what leads to bowel cancer in people," she adds.
So what place should ham and chorizo have in our diets?
Although the Cancer Council advises limiting or avoiding processed meats, it's not about whisking away the Christmas ham entirely.
"A bit of leg ham off the bone now and again is probably okay, but that's different to eating a lot of more processed ham in packets," Chapman says. "You ask people how often they eat processed meat and they'll tell you it's about once a week - just bacon with eggs at the weekend, for instance. But if they were to really think about it, it would probably be more like once a day.
"I'd suggest looking at your intake of processed meat and prioritising the type of meat you enjoy, so that if you really like bacon with a big breakfast at the weekend, then have it, but don't have ham sandwiches so often. Instead increase the variety of your sandwich fillings - have tuna or salmon or add some salad to a cheese sandwich instead of a slice of ham. Put fish or chicken on the barbecue instead of sausages.
"Compared with smoking and obesity, which are considered strong risk factors for cancer, processed meat is less of a risk - but reducing the amount you eat is one more thing you can do to help lower the risk," Chapman says.
As for those recipes that call for bacon or chorizo to add flavour, mushrooms can do the job instead, while nuts like pine nuts or crushed pecans are a good alternative in grainy dishes and pastas. Sautéed spinach, tomatoes or more mushrooms stand in for bacon with eggs at breakfast at our place - and hummus squeezed the ham out of the sandwich years ago.
Have you cut down on processed meat?