If you're a meat eater, you may not be too fond of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Earlier this year, the two declared that consumption of both red and processed meats increased the risk for colorectal cancer by up to 18 per cent. The news spread like wildfire and put into question our decision to purchase some rather delectable choices such as bacon.
This isn't the first time meats have been placed squarely in the crosshairs of public health's scrutiny. In the 1970s, these same products were fingered as possible causes for cancer. Back then, the information was based on a single study in mice that showed a meat preservative, nitrite, caused cancer through the formation of a carcinogenic molecule, nitrosamine. The results were not entirely conclusive but that didn't stop the push to reduce the level of nitrites in processed meats.
By the 1980s, at least in the United States, regulations were put into place to ensure the concentration of these chemicals was reduced to what was believed to be safe levels.
Now it seems what's old is new again, albeit with a twist. Instead of solely focusing on nitrites and nitrosamine, the current declaration discusses a group of carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic aromatic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Both are formed in the processing and cooking of meats, particularly if high temperatures are used.
Also, instead of mice, the testing was done in humans using not a clinical trial but rather a "head counting" method. Essentially, if a person ate at least three rashers of bacon or slices of deli meat a day, they had that 18 per cent higher risk for colorectal cancer.
The overall conclusion from both past and present is a rather simple one: Avoid cancer-causing chemicals in meat. This can be accomplished through moderation by limiting how much red and processed meats are eaten. The goal can also be accomplished through exclusion by eschewing meat altogether (although this may be quite difficult for self-professed carnivores).
There is, however, a third option that can keep your colon and your taste buds happy: Consume fermented meats.
Long before preservative chemicals were introduced into manufacturing, meats and other perishables had to be either salt-cured or fermented in order to preserve them. Both are highly effective at keeping pathogenic bacteria and fungi from growing and eventually spoiling our foods.
But fermentation comes with an added bonus. The bacteria contained within helps to reduce the level of those cancer-causing chemicals.
The process is quite simple. Several bacterial species regard these carcinogens as toxins and have developed mechanisms to prevent damage. In some cases, the harmful chemical is bound up and immobilized, preventing any possible contact with other cells. In others, enzymes break down the threat into harmless byproducts. The end result is safer for the bacteria and, if we consume the product, for us.
Though fermented meat may be the healthiest route forward, finding these products may not be all that easy. Meat fermentation takes much longer to develop an edible food product. The process also requires having a microbiology lab to continually assess and monitor the bacterial population.
Unlike other fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and miso, where a variety of species will deliver essentially the same product, meat fermentation requires attention to ensure no pathogens from the raw meat are introduced into the mix. It is most definitely not something one should try at home without a decent knowledge of microbial ecology.
Thankfully, you may not need to become a full-fledged microbiologist to gain the benefits of fermented meats. The recent resurgence of fermentation has meant a greater variety of options, including believe it or not, bacon, may soon be coming to a store aisle near you. Although this particular choice may not yet be in stores, you can still find sausages, salamis and other fermented deli meats right now.
The best way to ensure a product is fermented is to look at the ingredient label. If you see the words "starter culture" then you can trust the product is for real. You can also tell by asking at which temperature the product should be stored. Raw and processed meats need to be kept in the fridge but many fermented options are safe on the kitchen counter.
Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with more than 25 years experience in research. His latest book, The Germ Files, comes out in February, 2016. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro