Ham is a staple for so many Australian households. A go-to sandwich filling, low fat and a protein source we know the kids will eat. I’m often asked if ham is healthy. Is it too salty? Are processed meats in general OK? Which are the best? You may have seen media reports linking processed meats to cancer and poor health. Does this mean we should stop eating ham?
The fact that you are reading this as a blog post is clue that it’s not that simple. So let’s delve deeper and see if we need to be reduce our intake or avoiding ham.
Is the salt in ham harmful?
In adults, salt intake above 2,000 mg per day is associated with high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for kidney disease and cardiovascular disease. Ham is a preserved meat with a high sodium (salt) content. Most supermarket brands of ham range from 900mg of sodium per 100g to 1200mg per 100g.
The recommended maximum intake of sodium for healthy adults is 2,000mg a day. The National Heart Foundation recommends people with high blood pressure limit their intake to 1600mg a day. So it certainly is possible to include salt in your diet, especially in small amounts, and be within your daily sodium limits.
|1-3 yrs||200-400mg/day||1,000 mg/day|
|4-8 yrs||400-600mg/day||1,400 mg/day|
|9-13 yrs||400-800mg/day||2,000 mg/day|
|14-18 yrs||460-920mg/day||2,300 mg/day|
Many otherwise healthy foods like breakfast cereals, bread and sauces contain hidden sodium, so care needs to be taken with those foods too. Given that a single slice of wholegrain bread has 140mg of sodium, a simple ham sandwich could contain 780mg of sodium. That’s over half the upper limit for 4-8 year old child and all the need for the day.
Processed Meat and Cancer Risk
Ham is a processed meat which has been linked to the risk of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has only ever found 3 foods to cause cancer.
- Processed meat
- Chinese-style salted fish
In nutrition research research, it is very difficult to determine if something directly cause a health outcome or not. There is a great deal of evidence to support the fact that processed meat actually causes cancer.
What is processed meat
Meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation is classed as processed meat. Examples of processed meat include:
- hot dogs (frankfurters)
- corned beef
- biltong or beef jerky
- canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.
The nitrates and nitrites have been accused as being the perpetrators here.
The body converts nitrates to produce potentially carcinogenic compounds
However, it isn’t that simple. Nitrites and nitrates are also naturally occurring in other foods like vegetables but do not pose a health risk. Importantly, the issue seems to be the interaction between the protein, fat and nitrites when the food is heated and processed.
Scientists still can’t pinpoint the blame on the nitrates alone. For this reason, buying natural ham that is nitrite free may not solve the problem (but it could help, we just don’t know yet).
How much processed meat is harmful?
The simple answer is, we just don’t know. We also don’t know if eating ham will give YOU cancer we just know it increases your risk. You may know someone who smoked most of their life and didn’t get lung cancer.
The IARC have concluded that over the long term, consuming 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily (that’s just two slices of bacon or 1 frankfurter) increased the risk of bowel cancer by 18%. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how much is ‘safe’ or risk free. Cancer Council Australia recommends avoiding processed meats such as frankfurters, salami, bacon and ham all together.
How to reduce how much processed meat you eat
If you want to reduce how much ham and processed meat you and your family is eating, you need may need a plan. For many people (and kids), ham is a staple protein source. It’s easy, lasts for a while in the fridge and it’s tasty.
As with any dietary change, the key is to do it gradually, but with intent.
Step 1: Start by making a list of things you like or would like to try as a replacement.
Step 2: Start eating these sometimes, in addition to the ham, so they become accepted and seem part of your normal day/week.
Step 3: Reducing the portion size of ham/processed meat when you do have it. Try one just one slice instead of 2 or more.
Step 4: Reduce how often you serve and eat ham processed meat. Actively look for alternatives (eg. can you replace ham in a recipe with feta cheese?) and when you do want to have it, stick with a small serve size.
High protein sandwich ideas without processed meat:
- Sliced roast meat (when I roast meat for dinner, I freeze thin slices for my husbands lunches – they defrost really well).
- Nut butters (not for school)
- shredded chicken and avocado or cream cheese
- Smashed cannellini bean and avocado
- Hommus, grated carrot and grated cheese
- Sliced or curried egg
- Cheese and salad (Parmesan, Swiss, Edam and mozzarella are high in protein)
Healthier Hot Dogs
Use regular sausages instead of frankfurts. Choose the best quality sausage you can (not the cheapest) to get the most meat and the least fat and filler.
In Australia, fresh sausages aren’t considered to be a processed meat. Food Standards Australia New Zealand limit the nitrate levels and fat content in our sausages so they’re considered fresh meat. We still need to be careful not to burn or char sausages though as that might also increase cancer risk.
Should you avoid ham all together?
I haven’t written this post to scare you. Eating a ham sandwich is not going to cause you immediate harm. Maybe you don’t eat ham and bacon that often anyway. Or perhaps you have a child who relies on ham for protein. . This issue isn’t black and white and I can’t tell you how often is safe to eat ham. You need to consider what your regular diet looks like, most of the time and how much of all the processed meats you are eating.
I can tell you what I chose to do though. I buy ham and bacon sometimes, a couple of times a year at most. At home, we limit our consumption and use sliced grilled or roasted meat and egg in sandwiches instead of ham. Avoiding it at home means I can relax about my family ordering bacon from a cafe if they (or I) feel like it. We enjoy making hot dogs sometimes too, but we use ‘real’ sausages* instead.
And when I do buy ham or bacon, I chose the natural nitrate free varieties, just in case…
Sarah Moore is a mum, and university qualified Registered Nutritionist with a decade of experience working with families to improve their health and well-being. Sarah has a simplistic and practical approach to family nutrition and can help the overwhelm of eating and living well with private consultations, email Q&A and her school lunchbox ebook. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram for more healthy tips and tricks.