All meats are under scrutiny since the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that processed and red meats are linked to colorectal cancer, and lunch meat is no exception. Lunch meat certainly falls under the processed category and does pose these risks, as stated in the WHO report.

“An analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.”

50 grams of meat is about two and a half slices of bologna or two strips of bacon, and it’s especially important to understand these dangers because lunch meats are such a staple of many everyday meals.

Though the connection between processed meats and cancer is well-researched, the exact cause of the connection isn’t known. Lunch meats have been linked to cancer because of their high concentrations of nitrates, BHA, BHT, and other chemicals found in flavorings that companies are not mandated to list in the ingredients. Some lunch meats, like bologna and salami, are even more risky because of the extra sausage-like processing. For the concerned mother or sandwich aficionado, processed meats should be decreased in the diet and replaced with alternatives.

Dietary experts say this research doesn’t mean everyone should stop eating processed meats altogether. Rather, those who consume a lot of processed meat should cut back.

Fear not—not all meat is harmful. Lunch meats sliced fresh at the store have less preservatives than those pre-packaged, although this does mean they’ll only last a week instead of a couple of months. An even better alternative is to cook and slice the meats yourself—that way you control the sodium, the preservatives, and the flavorings. Tuna, peanut butter, and hummus are risk-free sandwich fillers as well. If you love your sliced ham, look for more natural options and check the ingredients for nitrates, BHA and BHT.

The Cancer Project is currently working with the USDA to reduce processed meats in school lunches, but the best prevention is to plan your children’s meals with WHO recommendations in mind.

Sources: World Health Organization, American Cancer Society

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Sydney Cobb

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