On 4 March 2018 Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that the recent listeriosis outbreak in South Africa was traced to an Enterprise food facility in Polokwane.
According to News24, listeria was linked to another Enterprise facility in Germiston on the East Rand, and a Rainbow chicken facility in the Free State, but further tests were needed as the sequence type was not yet known.
This means that several food products including polony, sliced cold meat, Viennas and Russians had to be recalled from supermarket shelves to conduct further testing to safeguard people against further infections.
An affordable option
But for many households in South Africa, processed ready-to-eat meats are affordable and convenient sources of protein. Polony on bread goes further and is cheaper than fresh meat options.
Unfortunately, processed meat is not your healthiest option – and not only because of listeriosis.
Bad for your health and your waistline
Polony, deli meat cuts and ready-to-eat sausages may be convenient, affordable and delicious, but a large-scale study conducted in 2015 involving nearly 450 000 people finds that eating too much processed meat might shave years off your life.
Those who ate the most processed meat increased their risk of dying early by 44%. In broader terms, if people ate less processed meat, the number of premature deaths globally would drop by almost 3%, Swiss researchers reported.
According to a previous Health24 article, high consumption of processed meats is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Not only does the consumption of these products weigh heavily on the body, but also on the planet. They have a high carbon-footprint as more resources are needed to convert the raw product to a processed product.
What are the dangers of processed meat?
High consumption of meat, but particularly processed meat products has been linked to a higher risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers, according to a previous Health24 article.
There are several factors that contribute to the increased risk of cancer and disease, says Sabine Rohrmann, head of the division of cancer epidemiology and prevention at the Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Zurich. "Meat is rich in cholesterol and saturated fat, which can be linked with coronary heart disease."
These types of meats also have a high fat content. The SA Food Tables give average values of 316kJ, 28.3g fat and 2.8g carbohydrates per 100g of polony. Compare that with grilled chicken without the skin, which contains less fat at 15g per 100g – a far better option.
Processed meat is treated with nitrates to increase shelf life by preventing growth of bacteria, improve or retain the pink or red colour, and to improve taste by suppressing fat oxidation.
"However, it also causes the formation of carcinogens. These are linked to the risk of colorectal and stomach cancer," Rohrmann says.
In addition, high iron intake from meat may lead to an increased risk for cancer.
Our dietician expert, Nicola Walters, gives her take on processed meat: "Now that the Listeroisis outbreak has been sourced to a processed meat factory, it is as good a time as any to discuss the nutrition concerns of a diet high in processed meats," she says.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogen. A carcinogen is something that causes cancer. As part of this research conducted in 2015, Twenty-two experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies to reach their conclusions. They found that eating 50g of processed meat every day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. The portion of 50g is the equivalent of about four strips of bacon or one hot dog.
According to Walters, another study conducted in 2014 looked into the relationship between processed meat and obesity. The research showed processed meat intake is directly associated with an increased risk of obesity as well as risk for higher BMI and greater waist circumference measures.
Other studies done have also shown an association between the consumption of processed red meat and high blood pressure. All of these conditions are associated with increased risk for chronic diseases such as Diabetes and Heart Disease.
"The processed meats (polony, sausages, frankfurters, Russians, bacon and luncheon meats) can be very high in fat and added sodium and they contain nitrates which have been shown to be harmful for health and even increase risk for certain cancers," says Walters.
What can we eat instead?
Steering clear from polony and other processed meats doesn’t mean that we have to break the bank. There are several other sources of affordable protein products.
The Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch suggests the following protein sources:
- Choose affordable, fresh protein options such as mince or stew meat.
- Make the meat in your dishes go further by adding kidney beans, mixed beans, lentils or even baked beans.
- When cooking mince, add soy, lentils, beans, oat bran and/or vegetables to bulk it up. You can also add beans, lentils, potatoes and other veggies to stews, casseroles and curries. Mix mashed, cooked dried beans with mince or fish to make meat loaf, fish cakes or meatballs.
- Tinned fish, such as pilchards and tuna, is usually cheaper than fresh fish. Choose fish tinned in brine instead of oil. Frozen fish also tends to be cheaper than fresh fish, so always compare prices. Making your own fishcakes with pilchards can be very economical.
- Buy whole chicken and cut it up into portions to freeze for later use – whole chicken is cheaper than pre-cut chicken pieces. Remember to remove the skin and all excess fat if you're avoiding fat. No time for cooking? Buy a rotisserie chicken and use the leftover meat for sandwiches – ensuring that any leftovers are refrigerated properly, kept in an airtight container and consumed while still fresh.
An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that grilled chicken without skin contained 109g of fat per 100g. It contains 15g per 100g.
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