What is Processed Meat, Anyway?

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Roasted Chicken
Chicken Nuggets
Chicken Sausage






There’s a new report today about how screening prevents colorectal cancer deaths – and that is very good news.

And AICR adds more good news to that – we know that limiting red meat to less than 18 oz. (cooked) per week and avoiding processed meat are proven ways to lower risk for colorectal cancer.

What do we mean by “processed meat”?

AICR/WCRF expert report and its updates defines processed meat as “meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.” Ham, bacon, pastrami, sausages, hot dogs and luncheon meats are all considered processed meat.

It’s not yet clear exactly why these meats increase risk for colorectal cancer. It may be the added nitrites and nitrates, salt, or high temperatures used in some processing, or the heme iron in red meat.

Does this include nitrate and nitrite free turkey or chicken lunch meats and sausage? At this point we need studies that distinguish between nitrate/nitrite-free processed poultry and the typical hot dogs and luncheon meats with added nitrates and nitrites. These products are relatively new, so we need studies that make these distinctions.

So, for now, save processed meats for special occasions and choose fresh meats most of the time. The pictures above show the least processed chicken – roasted chicken – to more processed meats – chicken nuggets (added fat, salt and breading) and chicken sausage (typically added salt, fat and nitrates).

For more on how to lower risk for colorectal cancer see the latest from the AICR/WCRF expert report continuous update here.

Visit AICR Healthy Recipes for delicious recipes for chicken, fish, beef and pork.

Please share brown bag lunch ideas for sandwiches that don’t include processed meat.



Author: Alice RD

Alice G. Bender, MS, RDN, is the Director of Nutrition Programs at AICR. She helps put the science of cancer prevention into action by providing tips and tools to choose nutritious and delicious foods. Alice has guided thousands of individuals to healthier lives through diet changes and choices.

49 thoughts on “What is Processed Meat, Anyway?”

  1. How about herring in cream sauce? Or wine sauce? And how about gravlax , Cured at home?

  2. I love turkey bacon, is it considered processed meat? I normally buy ButterBall or The Biggest Loser?

    1. Hello Tiffany,

      Typically bacon products are smoked, salted or cured – and have added nitrates or nitrites. Both of these brands do have added salt and other additives, including nitrites, so they would be considered processed. As mentioned in the blog post we don’t know from studies if there are any differences in nitrite/nitrate free vs nitrite/nitrate containing products and cancer risk so we encourage you to save all types of processed meats for special occasions and choose fresh meats, when eating meat.
      Thanks for your question.

    1. Turkey chops are made from fresh turkey and refer to the way the turkey is cut. Because it is not cured, smoked or heavily salted, it would not be considered processed meat. Enjoy!

    1. Thank you for your question: Fresh ground turkey is not considered processed meat because it is not smoked, cured, or salted, and as fresh, would not contain preservatives.

  3. Helloo so what meat is best to eat I normaly have chicken breast defrosted but buy it from the supermarket

    1. Dear Glyn,
      Fresh poultry (e.g. whole chicken, breast, thighs), fish (e.g. whole or filet), beef(e.g. roast, steak, ground) or pork (e.g. tenderloin, chop, roast) displayed wrapped on a refrigerated shelf or cut and unwrapped in the butcher case will be the least processed types of meat. Any of these could also be frozen without additives and that is not considered processed meat. Plain canned tuna and chicken do often have some added salt, but not to the same levels as cured meats.
      Overall, AICR’s recommendation on red meat (beef, pork, lamb) is to limit your weekly amounts to 18 ounces of cooked meat.
      Thanks for your question.

  4. Hi Alice!

    Would appreciate your views on the green but smoked tea question sometime.( We have some from China.)

  5. Hello,

    Following your advice about meat – for which many thanks again, could you say something about smoked tea please? I drink green tea but came across some that tasted smoked. Is it harmful or. like other green teas such as Dragon Well, beneficial in the fight against cancer?

  6. What about the solution that is added to red meat and poultry that can be purchased at the grocery store. Is there enough salt in the solution to consider them proceessed meats?

    1. Hi Kay,
      The amount of salt/sodium typically added to fresh meat is not enough for it to be considered processed meats. It is considerably less salt than is in luncheon meats. For example, the “enhanced” chicken breast meat would contain about 150 mg sodium per 3 oz, whereas 3 oz of deli chicken can contain more than 700 mg.

    1. Hi Amy,
      The ingredients on the package say “turkey” , so it appears that there are no other additives like nitrates or nitrites. If that is the case then it is just the meat. It might be worth a call to the company to confirm.

    1. Hi Kim,
      The canned white chicken meat does not meet AICR’s definition of processed meat, which is “meats preserved by smoking, curing, or salting, or by the addition of preservatives.” Canned chicken meat is preserved through the canning/sealing process. As for meat in canned soups, plain chicken or beef, for example would not be considered processed meat, but if it is processed before going into the soup – like sausage, ham or bacon – then it would be considered processed meat.

    2. That is good news! It had salt content listed in the nutritional info, so I couldn’t figure it out. Thanks for your time and expertise!

    1. Hi Kym,
      Fresh poultry, fish and beef is not processed meat. Processed meat is defined as meat preserved by smoking, curing, or salting, or by the addition of preservatives.

  7. Not a reply but a question from the UK: Here I sometimes use corned beef as, say, a salad ingredient. It is certainly processed, is basically red meat, but is it to be avoided as much as ,say, bacon, ham, sausages, pepperoni? Many thanks from an AICR supporter.

    1. Hello John,
      Corned beef is a processed meat because it is cured through the curing brine. The brine contains both salt and usually a type of pink curing salt which contains sodium nitrite. The pink curing salt is what makes the corned beef a pink color. So, yes, it fall into the same category as bacon, ham etc.

      Thanks for your question and your support!

  8. The evidence is specifically related to processed meats and does not address processed plant-based burgers like soy burgers. Vegetarian burgers are less likely to contain added nitrites (you can check the label) and they wouldn’t contain heme iron (found only in meat). As I mentioned in the post, those are two potential ways processed meat may increase colorectal cancer risk. Soy foods like tofu, edamame and soy milk are also healthful choices and good protein sources. If you don’t want to buy processed burgers, try making your own veggie burger. We’ve got an easy recipe: http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=11860&news_iv_ctrl=0&abbr=pr_
    And you can read more about soy here: http://www.aicr.org/foods-that-fight-cancer/soy.html

  9. Hi
    Great article on processed meats. I am wondering where soy protein fits in the debate and would soy burgers be considered processed and therefore carry the same health risks? One can get soy protein slices that is made to resemble anything from turkey to salami. What is the thinking about soy?
    Daryl Dooks

  10. I would be interested in your take on fermentation with regard to meat. There is a recent resurgence of interest in fermented foods in general, for various reasons, but especially because of their function as probiotics. In the context of this discussion the question would center on fermented sausage, e.g. traditional salamis. I think this can involve a variety of processes but I’ve found what I’ve read on this confusing with regard to the issues of concern around processed meats.

  11. How about cheese? Are they processed food? You know, the ones we use for sandwiches(America cheese) Do you recommend avoiding that?

    1. According to AICR’s expert report and continuous updates, evidence is not strong enough to link cheese – whether natural or processed – to cancer risk. Cheese is often high in saturated fat and sodium, so there is good reason to limit how much you eat.

  12. Is cooking meat on a George Foreman grill okay? And is gas a better method than charcoal to grill? Thanks for all the great information!

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      The research is clear that limiting red meat to less than 18 oz (cooked) per week and avoiding processed meat lowers risk for colorectal cancer. As for grilling please see my earlier response on this post (October 2012) to Sam about grilled meats. When you do grill and eat red meat, marinating meats and using lower cooking temperatures may help reduce formation of these potential carcinogens regardless of cooking method.

  13. So where does this leave us with making sandwiches? what type of lunchmeat is safe, if any, for sandwich making? also, Is ground sausage processed meat? Say it isn’t so…I love sausage patties with my eggs in the am. thanks!!

    1. If you make meat sandwiches at home here are a couple of options: Roast your own chicken or turkey breast or beef – refrigerate a few slices for use in 2-3 days and freeze the rest of the meat to use later. If your supermarket sells fresh roasted chicken, you can use that meat for sandwiches. Or use canned tuna or salmon mixed with vegetables and a little mayo for sandwiches. Try hummus with avocado, cucumber and tomato or veggie burgers for non-meat alternatives. As for sausage, if it is fresh with no nitrites, salt or other preservatives added and isn’t smoked or cured, it wouldn’t be considered processed meat.

  14. would fresh sausage (e.g. fresh italian sausage or fresh chorizo) be considered a processed meat? (not that chorizo is particularly healthy anyway)

    1. Thanks for the question. If the meat is simply fresh ground meat with spices and herbs added – but no nitrites, salt or other preservatives – and it’s not smoked or cured, then it would not be considered processed. In that case it would need to be refrigerated and eaten within a few days.

  15. What would be the best way to go about eating meat. For example, what type of meat and cooking processes ate best? I ask this as I consume much meat to supply my high protein diet.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Not just plain frozen chicken breasts – these are great to keep on hand to prepare a quick meal. Processed meat is defined in AICR’s expert report and its updates as: meats preserved by smoking, curing, or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives. Thanks for your question and interest.

    1. The ham, deli turkey and pepperoni are all considered processed meat because they have been cured. If the meatballs are made with frozen or fresh ground beef, they are not considered processed meat because the meat is not cured nor has added nitrates or nitrites. If beef meatballs, though, it is red meat so our recommendation to limit to 18 oz cooked red meat or less per week applies.

  16. Hello,

    Are turkey and chicken cold cuts say from Boarshead processed meats?
    Also, what about bbq on a charcoal grill? do the foods become contaminated?

    1. Hello Sam,
      These cold cuts do fit AICR’s definition of processed meats. As for bbq – Carcinogenic substances, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when meat is charred or cooked at high temperatures. Although evidence is not strong about the link between barbecued meats and cancer risk, you can avoid these substances by cooking meats at low temperatures, marinating the meat before grilling and limiting the time meat is exposed to the flame and high heat.

  17. Venison is a red meat, but unless it has been smoked, cured or contains added preservatives, it would not be considered processed. It does tend to be lean – it compares to the leanest beef, so can be a lower calorie choice. Thanks for your inquiry.

    1. Thanks for the question. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when meats are smoked and PAHs have been found to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. That is why smoked meat is included in the processed meat category. So AICR’s recommendation to limit processed meat to once in a while consumption would apply to your smoked chicken too.

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