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Processed meats play havoc with our health

A cup of tea from a flask with a ham sandwich (on well-buttered bread) is hard to beat as the main component of an Irish picnic.

On holiday too, this is often what I take to the beach for the family to munch on at midday.

The bread in France might be nicer, the butter might be salt-free (yum), but the ham is universally the same. What is it about such simplicity in food that we are drawn to?

Why is this one of the most popular sandwiches to fill the lunch-boxes and picnics of most adults and children alike?

Why do we enjoy the bland above all else, and should we consider looking farther afield for our picnic fodder?

What we enjoy in ham and other lunch meat, in one word, is salt. All luncheon meats are laden with salt. Nature designed us to love salt. If we consume salt we survive famine that little bit longer than if we don't, as salt holds on to water in the body.

The only way to fight this urge to over-do salt is to do without it for a number of weeks (perhaps six) and to emerge with a palate that cannot enjoy the salt levels being served to us in most (if not all) processed foods.

Why resist processed meats?

Essentially, we need to remove as much processed food as possible from our weekly diet. Processed usually means "value-added".

Think of a chicken breast that, as a simple food, is extremely good for you, giving you a lean, clean source of protein, minerals and vitamins (especially if you can afford to buy organically-produced).

Frozen Kiev or cordon bleu chicken, on the other hand, may have been produced at a rate of three or more portions from the one fillet, as it is plumped and pumped, filled and enhanced in saltiness and other hard-to-resist flavours.

What was once great for you is now not at all good for you. It may, in fact, cost you, be 
it in terms of increasing your blood 
pressure (which is the effect of salt) or 
making you eat more (the effect of being very moreish).

ham and its health effects

The ham we all love so much has an even more complex story with regard to its potential health effects. This extends to rashers, bacon, sausages, luncheon meats, hot-dogs, pepperoni, salami and the likes.

These meats are particularly questionable as a result of their sodium nitrite content. Sodium nitrite is added to fix the colour of the meat and give it a nice red, fresh look.

In the body, however, sodium nitrite results in the production of nitrosamines, and these are considered to be cancer-causing.

Recent research is pointing towards there being an upper limit, of less than 20g per day, of such meats that are safe.

Think one rasher, one small sausage, one slice of luncheon meat or ham (not "the works" for breakfast). This is quite a new thing, to see an upper limit on how much of a particular food is allowed in terms of health safety. We need to take note.

what do i need to do?

It's definitely time, now that we know they're not as good for us as we hoped they might be, to limit our intake of processed meats.

It's the regularity with which we consume these meats that may run us into trouble. Having a slice of ham in a bread roll for an occasional picnic should be no problem (as it will be just under the ideal of 18g maximum per day), but aim not to have a sausage hot-dog that night for tea.

Equally, look to alternatives for the sandwich filling. I associate the smell of tinned salmon with family picnics when I was a child as that's what we used to have.

All kids (and many big people) will initially turn up their noses at this seemingly smelly alternative to the simple ham sandwich. You might be surprised, however, at how hunger easily takes care of all such complaints at the end of a busy morning on the beach.

Alternatives to processed meats include such sources of good quality protein as eggs (add mayonnaise and mash), chicken (cook two instead of one at the weekend and slice) and tinned fish (to include the smelliest of all, the sardine).

Research shows that not only is the protein intact in a tin, but that after a year the essential fats present in the flesh of a sardine are still as good for you as they were when it hopped out of the Atlantic and into that little tin on day one.

Vegetarian-friendly alternatives to meat-filled sandwiches include such fillers as peanut butter (and other nut-butters, with jam or banana), hummus (and falafel, if you are so inclined), cream cheese (and cucumber), cheddar cheese (with relish and onion) and goat creme cheese with red onion relish.

change your palate

Yes, the ham sandwich is extremely convenient, the rasher is to die for, the sausage is scrumptious, the pizza with pepperoni is particularly palatable.

Indulge on occasion, of course. I am no fan of deletion. Consider these processed meats as rare treats. Try not to depend on them.

What you will most likely find is that your palate no longer likes them and you move past their charm. Do this now, as we learn they may be harmful.

Prevent as many assaults on your system as possible. Raise the bar, in terms of quality. What pleases me is that while most producers just keep on producing the same old, same old, some are seeing the niche that is the health-conscious consumers market.

As such, some producers are now giving us ham without the use of sodium nitrite. This evolution needs to continue.

For this to happen, we need to read our food labels and keep demanding the quality product. I have always liked the notion that you can have your cake and eat it.

I can now go to the supermarket and find a ham product that doesn't have any sodium nitrite added. Guess which one I buy?