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What you should know about processed meat

Processed meat is a convenient source of protein but there is accumulating evidence linking excessive consumption of processed meat to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even some cancers.

One small thing: Choose canned fish or egg as sandwich fillers, rather than relying on processed meats, such as sliced ham and polony.

What is processed meat? Broadly speaking, it's any meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying, fermenting or canning. This includes bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, deli meats, canned meats and biltong. These meats tend to be high in saturated fat and sodium, and are usually preserved with nitrates or nitrites.

Although processed meat is a popular source of protein in the South African diet, research has shown that there are health risks associated with regularly eating processed meat. This doesn't mean that you have to stop eating processed meats entirely, but the bulk of your diet should consist of vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes and wholegrains.

What is sodium nitrate?

Unfortunately many processed meats are preserved with sodium nitrate and contain a lot of added salt.

Sodium nitrate is a preservative that's most often used to extend the shelf life of some processed meats, such as bacon and deli meats. It's thought that having too much sodium nitrate in the diet may cause damage to blood vessels, making arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease.

"Eating processed meats in moderation is key to ensuring your good health," says PnP dietitian Juliet Fearnhead.

Healthy alternatives to processed meats

"There are a number of healthier options than cold meats for your next sandwich or light lunch," says Fearnhead. "Just make sure you choose the leaner variants of cold meat available, such as pastrami, smoked turkey and chicken, and some low-fat smoked hams. And aim for the products with a fat content of less than around 5g of fat per 100g."

Ready to cut back on processed meat but not sure where to start? Here are some healthy ideas for filling your next sandwich:

  • Choose skinless, roast chicken or slices of roast beef – these are not only lower in fat but lower in salt too.
  • Canned tuna and salmon are great sandwich-filler options if you want to boost your intake of healthy omega-3 fats.
  • The versatile boiled egg (with low-oil mayonnaise and finely chopped celery) is a healthy and affordable protein boost to your wholewheat roll.
  • Veggie toppings don't need to be boring. Try experimenting with cucumber or avocado slices, and pickled carrots for texture and taste.
  • Make a nutty-flavoured lentil spread for sandwiches. Simply purée 1 cup (250ml) of drained canned lentils with your favourite herbs (rosemary, oregano or tarragon pair well with lentils).

Worried about meeting an adequate daily protein quota if you cut down on processed meat? For most healthy adults the recommended daily allowance for protein is about 60g, depending on your weight, age, gender and physical activity. And the good news is you can easily get this amount of protein from a whole-food, plant-based diet that includes beans, peas, soya products, nuts and seeds.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit To get in touch with us, email