Is a ban on processed meats in hospitals really necessary?

August 2, 2015

Is a ban on processed meats really necessary?

Animal Aid’s ‘No Safe Limit’ campaign has called for the removal of processed red meat products from hospital menus. Does this suggest that care homes should also remove processed meat from their menus? No.  And this week’s blog will attempt to explain why.

What are processed meats?

Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives, and includes:

  • sausages
  • bacon
  • ham and cured meat like salami and pastrami
  • pâté
  • hamburgers and minced meats – if preserved with salt or chemical additives

Research has shown that eating processed meat can increase your colorectal or bowel cancer risk. The World Cancer Research Fund expert panel report states that there is convincing scientific evidence that high consumption of red and processed meat is associated with an increased colorectal cancer risk. They advise that people eat no more than 500g of red meat per week (around 70g a day) and limit processed meats. The conclusions from the report have been implemented into nutritional recommendations, including those in the UK, where people who eat more than 90g a day of red and processed meat should cut down to 70g a day.

Department of Health advice is to consume some meat or meat products, or other sources of protein (such as lentils, peas and beans), as part of a healthy balanced diet. Meat is a good source of protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins. Meat contributes to vitamin D intake and is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12, which is only found naturally in foods from animals, such as meat and milk.

Risks associated with processed meat

Increased risk of colorectal cancer with high red and processed meat consumption may be due to a real cause-and-effect relationship. For example, it has been suggested that when meat is preserved, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed. However, it should be kept in mind that associations may suffer from confounding effects. Meat contains a number of compounds of nutritional benefit and may not be carcinogenic as such but rather, when consumed in higher amounts, may result in an imbalanced diet (such as less fruit and vegetables, less fibre) and thereby increase the risk of developing bowel cancer.

The evidence to suggest that we limit the amount of red and processed meat to lower risk of bowel cancer applies to the general UK population, young and old. However, the nutritional needs of patients in hospitals and service users in care homes vary and there are many factors to be taken into account, for example whether the person is malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. Menus should be healthy, balanced and varied, but also ensure that enjoyed menu items (e.g. a sausage and bean casserole or a ham sandwich), are not removed because of this call.  Familiar foods and smells like bacon may be welcomed by service users, and can be useful in a cooked breakfast if someone with a reduced appetite eats more at breakfast than at other times.

Risk of malnutrition

It is vital to remember there is no nutritional value to an uneaten meal. The purpose of providing foods is to meet nutritional needs but also to meet preferences and enjoyment of the service user as part of their care plan.  The ‘No safe’ limits campaign on processed meats is misguided in that it seeks to ban, rather than limit processed meat intake. This is not justified by the evidence and is not appropriate for populations such as hospitals and care homes where for vulnerable people at risk of malnutrition, a meal that they will eat can be the best nutrition.

Ayela Spiro, British Nutrition Foundation – QCS Expert Nutrition Contributor


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