I had my hair cut last week. This is only worthy of mention because it’s at best a bi-annual event for me. Sitting there in your tinfoil bonnet, of course, there’s nothing to do except listen to the other customers and staff, or flick through weeks-old celebrity gossip magazines. I chose the former. Here’s the highlight of what I overheard, between two of the hairdressers during their tea break –
“So, they’ve said about processed food, you’re only supposed to eat one rasher of bacon a day”
“What? Bacon’s not processed food?”
“Yeah it is. The bacon in the pack in your fridge, that’s processed food. But if you get it from a butcher’s, it’s not.”
“You can get bacon from a butchers??”
In the news that morning, the reports of a big impressive prospective mortality study involving analysis of participants’ consumption of processed meats. It’s an odd category, that they’ve chosen – to include all cured and salted products, sausages, donner kebabs, but not all burgers. Confusing enough that my hairdressers had a fairly poor grasp of the parameters, anyway. Better perhaps if they’d restricted themselves to cured & smoked products, or gone wider and included all meat products that don’t arrive on the plate as recognisable pieces of whole muscle protein, without intervention beyond cooking. For me, there are too many variables.
Cured meats contain salt in quite large quantities – of course they do, they’re salt-cured! So does a bag of salt & vinegar crisps. They will often contain nitrites – but then so does celery. Mince-based processed meat products are generally higher in fat – they’re made from fattier cuts, and extra is often added as a bulking agent – but it’s perfectly possible to make a sausage from just minced pork shoulder, a bit of rusk or breadcrumb and some herbs and seasoning. And it’s also perfectly possible to eat a very fatty, salty, meat-based meal that isn’t ‘processed’ in the slightest.
As with all giant lifestyle studies, the confounding factors are going to be enormous, too. Do people who eat more processed meat eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, statistically speaking? Probably. Are they heavier or lighter smokers or drinkers than the comparison population? Attempts will have been made to correct for all of this, of course, but these are pretty blunt statistical instruments.
Mortality studies are always a problem for me. I hate to break it to you, but your risk of mortality, my risk of mortality, the lifetime risk of mortality for everyone (and everything) currently alive on this planet, is 100%. So you start looking at timeframe-mortality risks. 1 year. 5 year. 20 year. The main risk factor for timeframe mortality? Age, obviously – if you’re 80 going into a 20 year mortality study, things aren’t looking so good for you coming out the other side. Then genetics – the intrinsic, inherited factors in your biology over which you have no control. Then, I suppose, occupation and activities – if you’re a commercial deep diver, an alaskan crab fisherman, or like to race motorbikes or fly small aircraft, then these are going to have some effect. A very very *very* long way down the list is what you had for breakfast!
My hairdressers are right, though, about supermarket franken-bacon. Give me proper dry-cured smoke-smoked bacon or ham any day, rather than the nasties that come in supermarket packs, injected as they are with a brine already including a ‘natural’ liquid smoke extract (no, really) among many other exciting additives. Say no to that nasty leakage of milky phosphate water, and get some decent stuff from your local butcher (surprising an idea as that might seem to some!). Say no to reconstituted ‘ham’ all gristle and mis-matched re-formed fat and muscle fibres.
If you needed any more reasons to want to avoid processed ‘junk’ foods, after the ongoing horsemeat-adulteration saga, look no further than this absolutely horrifying NYT article on The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.
Of course we should all be trying to eat a balanced diet, mostly of fresh, local, good quality ingredients. We should probably all, in the affluent West (and increasingly affluent East) be eating less meat, if we want to feed the world and pass the planet on to future generations in any kind of state at all. But there are so many better reasons for that than trying to extend our survival. Do it for the sake of good food, good flavour, and do it for the health of our environment.
So relax, enjoy your good quality butchers’ or home-cured bacons, hams, salt beef and bangers, and kick the supermarket junk. Choose fresh, choose seasonal, choose local, and choose foods grown and reared, prepared and cooked with care, instead of being manufactured in anonymous processing plants at the end of a convoluted international commodity supply chain, down to a price selected by supermarket accountants. I don’t see that you can go very far wrong!
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