Summer is in full swing, and that means you may find yourself entertaining more often than usual. But if you find yourself preparing one particular party snack—especially if you do so with any regularity—you might be putting yourself at a heightened risk of colon cancer. Experts warn that one particular additive used in this food has been linked with colon cancer, and less frequently with kidney and stomach cancer. Read on to learn which popular treat could be increasing your risk, and why cancer isn’t the only concerning health complication it can cause.
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Nitrates are compounds found in our food that are made up of nitrogen and oxygen. They come from two main sources within our diets, explains Lindsay Delk, RD/RDN, a dietician with over 20 years experience: “added nitrates in processed meats and naturally occurring nitrates in plants.” Depending on their origin, these two types of nitrates “behave differently in the body,” she says, with added nitrates posing a threat to our health.
According to a recent report issued by the French food safety body ANSES, evidence now suggests that these compounds pose a danger to our health. “In light of current knowledge on their effects on human health, ANSES recommends reducing the population’s exposure to these substances by taking proactive measures to limit dietary exposure.”
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In particular, ANSES is calling attention to one snack that they say is a common source of added nitrates: charcuterie. One of the world’s most prolific producers of cold cuts, France announced plans to curb the use of these dangerous additives, which are often used to enhance the color and flavor of the meat, as well as prolong shelf life.
“ANSES has analyzed the scientific cancer studies that have been published since the reference work of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, 2017) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2018). It confirms that there is an association between the risk of colorectal cancer and exposure to nitrites and/or nitrates,” the organization wrote in its report. “The higher the exposure to these compounds, the greater the risk of colorectal cancer.”
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a new warning which labeled processed meat as a “group 1 carcinogen,” alongside other known cancer-causing substances such as tobacco and asbestos.
While this does not mean that processed meats cause cancer at the same rate as these other carcinogens, it does indicate that just like the other items on the list, there is sufficient evidence that they do cause cancer. The WHO explains that the “classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”
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Regularly eating processed meats has also been linked to a range of other serious health conditions, say experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is well known that besides increasing the risk of some cancers, high red and processed meat intake can also increase risk of other chronic and potentially life threatening diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes compared to other protein sources such as poultry, legumes and fish,” they wrote in a 2015 report.
The team, along with colleagues from Harvard Medical School, also explored the rates of total mortality associated with red or processed meat. They found that in 2013, there were 644,000 deaths which were attributable to diets featuring processed meat, “including deaths from cardiovascular disease or diabetes and colorectal cancers.”
The ANSES report says there are simple steps you can take to lower your risk of cancer and other chronic illnesses which can result from processed meat. They recommend limiting your intake of delicatessen meat to 150g (5.3 ounces) per week, and eating a well-balanced diet that contains at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.