With westernisation of diets, cured meats are becoming increasingly popular and people travel distances to reach their favourite delis. Preserving the entire pig (or any animal) after it was killed — a process that began centuries ago — has occupied an important place in the food market today.
There are no clear regulations on which part of the animal, type of meat, fat and fillers can be used for preparing these meats. Meat from any carcass along with animal fat is usually added. This is highly seasoned with herbs, spices, garlic flavouring, salt, and preservatives such as sugar and saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sodium nitrate.
Casings used in these meats can be intestines or chitterlings (large intestines of pig). Synthetic alternatives are also widely used. Some manufacturers use fillers such as breadcrumbs or special type of binders.
Modified by chemical treatment and extensive manipulation, processed meats such as bacon, salami, ham, sausages, luncheon meat, cold cuts, pepperoni are some of the fattest foods available. Upto 80 per cent of calories come from fat. Three pork sausages weighing 100g contain 25g of fat. Moreover, most animal fat is predominantly saturated fat, which is associated with cardiovascular disease.
It is interesting to know that the term sausage is derived from the Latin word “Salsus”, meaning “season with salt”. Cured meats contain dramatically high levels of sodium, a major cause for high blood pressure and a risk factor for kidney patients. Excess salt has also been linked to stomach cancer in some studies. Although they are not usually eaten in such large quantities, even 50g of salami contains nearly half the daily intake of salt recommended by World Health Organisation. A slice of pepperoni (20g), three pork sausages (100g) provide about 250 mg sodium, about 10 per cent of out daily requirement.
Although there is now stricter legislation controlling the use of colours, preservatives and flavouring, one group of additives — the nitrites and nitrates — are exempt and are a part of these meats as they prevent a deadly form of food poisoning called botulism.
Incidentally, in countries such as Japan, where nitrate is cured and smoked food is eaten regularly, cancers of esophagus and stomach occur more frequently. Infants are more sensitive to nitrite attack because their stomach acid is low. So, having a fruit and vegetable juice, fresh fruit or a salad with processed meat is a good idea.
Another concern of eating processed meats is the risk of parasitic infections such as worms, the most serious being tape worm. When humans eat infected meat of cows or pigs, which is not fully cooked, the larvae can be passed on from the stomach wall and carried to muscles and even brain causing epilepsy.