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A study found that the more processed meats people ate, the greater the risk of early death.

THE QUESTION: Lately I have been reading that deli meats are really unhealthy. How much is safe to eat? What are better alternatives for sandwiches?

THE ANSWER: Processed meats, including deli meats, have been the focus of recent reports. Last week, a 12-year European study of nearly half a million men and women linked a steady diet of processed meats to premature death.

People who ate more than 160 grams of processed meat each day – versus less than 20 grams – were 44 per cent more likely to die early, in particular from cardiovascular disease but also from cancer (160 grams of processed meat is equivalent to two large Italian sausages or three slices of deli ham and three small hot dogs). The more they ate, the greater the risk.

First, let's define processed meat. The term typically refers to meats (usually red meats) preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. Ham, bacon, pastrami, salami and bologna are processed meats. So are sausages, hot dogs, bratwursts and frankfurters. Few studies have defined processed meat to include turkey and chicken slices.

Last week's report wasn't the first to warn us about the health hazards of processed meat. In 2007, a review of 7,000 studies found convincing evidence that high intakes of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

What makes processed meat so unhealthy? For starters, it's a source of saturated fat, the type that raises blood cholesterol.

It's also very high in sodium. Four strips of cooked bacon, for example, packs 800 milligrams, more than half a day's worth.

Cooking meat at high temperatures forms heterocyclic amines, compounds that have been linked to cancer in animals and colorectal polyps in people.

Processed meat also contains sodium nitrite, a preservative used to combat botulism. During cooking, nitrites can react with compounds naturally present in meat to form potentially carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. (Processed meats also contain sodium erythorbate, an antioxidant that inhibits this conversion and helps minimize the risk.)

How much processed meat is safe to eat? The study findings suggested eating 20 grams or less per day didn't increase the risk of early death (20 grams is about 2 strips of bacon or half a kid's size hot dog).

If you eat processed meats regularly, I definitely advise you to back off.

So-called "natural" cold cuts and hot dogs are one alternative. Instead of conventional sodium nitrite, cultured celery extract – a source of naturally occurring nitrites – is added to preserve these products. While they still contain nitrites, the level is likely to be lower than conventionally cured meats.

Even so, I wouldn't make "natural" processed meats a regular part of your diet. They're still high in saturated fat and sodium. Consider that three slices of Maple Leaf's Natural Selections Hardwood Smoked Salami delivers one-third of a day's worth of sodium (510 mg).

Healthier alternatives for sandwiches and wraps include tuna, salmon, hummus and veggies, or fresh cooked poultry. When you're baking or grilling chicken, cook extra for lunches during the week. Or, roast a whole fresh turkey breast on Sunday to slice up for sandwiches and salads during the week.

Soy-based deli slices are also an alternative to regular deli meats. These are virtually saturated-fat-free and don't contain sodium nitrite. They do, however, still deliver a hefty amount of salt.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel'sDirect (

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