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Cured, smoked and salt-preserved foods

Preservatives are used to increase the life of foods by controlling the growth of undesirable moulds, yeast and bacteria in food that can cause spoilage and illnesses. Most food is processed and packaged to stop it from going bad. These foods tend to be high in fat, sugar and calories. Eating too much processed food can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

Processed meat generally refers to meat preserved by curing, smoking or salting, or by the addition of preservatives. Examples of processed meats are ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, hot dogs and sausages. Processed meats are often high in fat and salt. Fish can also be preserved with salting, smoking or adding preservatives.

Cured and smoked foods

Curing and smoking have been used for thousands of years to preserve foods like meat and fish.

  • Foods may be cured using nitrites or nitrates. These act as preservatives to prevent food from spoiling, and they also add colour to the meat. Nitrites and nitrates are not cancer-causing by themselves, but in certain conditions in the body they can be changed into by-products called N-nitroso compounds, such as nitrosamines and nitrosamides. N-nitroso compounds are associated with an increased risk of cancer. In Canada, vitamin C may be added to some preserved meats. Vitamin C keeps nitrites from changing into nitrosamines, which may help reduce the risk of cancer associated with these chemicals.
  • Meats and fish may also be smoked. Smoking exposes meat or fish to the smoke of a wood or charcoal fire. The foods absorb large amounts of the tar that comes off the smoke. These tars may contain cancer-causing compounds.
  • Preserved meats like bacon, salami, hot dogs and bologna are often high in fat and salt.

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Salt-preserved foods

Preserving or pickling food with salt is an ancient practice. Salt contains sodium, a mineral that is needed to help maintain proper fluid balance in our bodies. Salt often contains iodine, which is also needed for good health.

  • Too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Preserved foods such as salted fish, salted meats and pickled foods are very high in salt.

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Processed and preserved foods and cancer

The evidence is convincing that eating processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. The reasons why eating processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer are currently being studied.

It is often difficult to determine the risk of cancer related to cured and smoked foods because they are often salted and cured foods like bacon may also be cooked at a high temperature. All of these may be factors in increasing cancer risk.

The evidence linking cured or smoked meats to colorectal cancer is strong, but it is limited for other types of cancer like stomach cancer.

Studies have linked eating large amounts of foods preserved by salting and pickling with an increased risk of stomach cancer. The incidence of stomach cancer is greater in parts of the world (such as Japan) where diets traditionally include foods that are salt-preserved.

Studies have shown that the rates of nasopharyngeal cancer are high in areas where eating salt-cured fish or meat is very common.

There is no evidence that suggests using small amounts of salt in cooking or flavouring foods affects cancer risk.

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Reducing your risk

If you eat cured, smoked meats or processed meat or fish, have them in small amounts and less often.

  • Save processed meat for special occasions, such as ham for a holiday dinner or a hot dog at a sporting event.
  • Substitute cold cuts in a sandwich or wrap with vegetables or chicken.
  • Make a pizza without pepperoni – try using boneless chicken chunks with lots of veggies and herbs instead.
  • Do not add salt to these foods at the table or in cooking.
  • Eat salt-preserved foods in small amounts and only once in a while.

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