The Meat Industry Got it Wrong: Processed Meats Not Really Part of the Mediterranean Diet.

prosciuttoYou may have all seen the latest announcement of the World Health Organization that says bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer. This is not a new, academics have been talking about this for years.

What struck me is the announcement from the North American Meat Institute where Betsy Booren, Ph.D., NAMI Vice President of Scientific Affairs says that: “Followers of the Mediterranean diet eat double the recommended amount of processed meats”.

Sorry to say this, but she must not understand what the Mediterranean diet is, it is NOT Mediterranean Cuisine. As I have mentioned before, the Mediterranean diet is a specific diet and does not include the whole Mediterranean region. For example the diet in Northern Italy differs greatly from that of Southern Italy. In fact the original Mediterranean Diet Pyramid as developed by Harvard researchers and the W.H.O. was based only on the diet of Southern Italy and Greece. Northern Italy has a very “northern” type of diet with plenty of meat that cannot be considered a Mediterranean diet. The same goes for some parts of Spain. And for France we know that in Northern France there is a lot of meat and butter as opposed to Southern France where they use more olive oil. Read this post to see more about regional differences.

Again, I must mention that in the traditional Mediterranean diet, people ate meat once a week. Yes there were small amounts of naturally preserved meats such as prosciutto in Italy or the Cretan apaki a meat made from lean pork cured naturally that was consumed occasionally and in very small amounts like a meze.

These meats were made when local butchers slaughtered the animals before Christmas and in January and February. With the leftovers they would preserve the meats making these cured meats or sausages. But they were consumed rarely and they weren’t considered real food, just as a seasoning of sorts. In fact my father ate sausage for the first time when he was in his 20’s (he is in his 70’s now) and that was in the army, he had never seen other processed meats until he moved to US.

Also I should remind that in the prototype of the Mediterranean diet which is basically the Cretan diet, people fasted from animal products for 200 days a year, so in practical terms it was impossible to be eating all this meat, let alone processed meats.

Perhaps Dr. Booren is talking about what the current Mediterraneans are eating, which is basically a lot more meat, a lot more saturated fat and lot more processed foods and not a Mediterranean diet. As a result, we have higher rates of heart disease as well as other chronic diseases compared to the 60’s. Living in Greece and experiencing this firsthand I can say that Greeks have an infatuation with luncheon meats, they eat them almost everyday in sandwiches. Pariza which is a bologna-like cylinder shaped product is promoted to kids as a healthy and tasty snack (this one was even voted product of the year!). Companies are adding a drop of olive oil in their processed meats and touting them as “Mediterranean” and healthy. The marketing of these products is astounding.

No, these products are not healthy and even more so with the use of preservatives that were not used in the traditional Mediterranean preserved meats.

I find it unfortunate and misleading that the Meat industry is using the Mediterranean diet as an argument for their products based on false information.

Photo by Navin75 for flickr

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  1. Josephine says:

    Thank you for the valid info about Mediterranean diet. I currently have very high triglycerides and have opted for the Mediterranean diet. I have many questions about what meat you can eat obviously nothing processed. If you have a moment can you email back.
    Kind regards
    Josephine Delgado

  2. I think your argument about a Mediterranean diet is strong – however many Italians I know would disagree completely with your assertion that they are not eating a ‘Mediterranean’ diet and many Greeks eat excellent cured meat. The WHO (and associated world media) exhibit cultural bias in their statements and every few years pop up with very old research to substantiate a claim against consumption of what they call ‘processed meat’. As a cynic I would like to ask WHO and others are doing this? The reason I ask is because even with my limited understanding of the curing process it is clear that high grade salami and prosciutto, Apaki (from Crete) or Pastourma (Greece via Asia Minor and Armenia) are not what is considered ‘processed meat’, that is for example ‘luncheon meat’, ‘beef’ burger meat and chicken meals. Those ‘processed meats’ always contain brine to plump them and suspect ingredients including dextrose, corn syrup, Sodium Diacetate, MSG, etc. Making your own cured meat is an entirely different ‘method’, a ‘slow food’ involving natural ingredients including herbs, sea salt and raw honey. The WHO announcement has been badly reported and has failed to distinguish ‘high quality’ products across Europe and elsewhere.

    1. Ian,
      Again regardless of the quality of meat or whether it is processed or not, the mediterranean diet is characterized by low intake of meat in general, therefore if meat is part of your daily diet than it is not really a mediterranean diet. Unfortunately in Greece as well, many Greeks eat traditional cured and smoked meats very often and think that the are following a traditional Greek-Mediterranean diet, they are not, as I explain in my article those meats were not consumed often. Now when we say “processed” that includes any intentional change of food from its original form and that includes drying or freezing. Cured and smoke meat even if done naturally carry their risks, smoking a meat for example can increase cancer containing compounds, cured meats are high in salt etc. The health risks do not have to do that much with the “quality” (of course addition of nitrites make the situation worse) but of the compounds that are developed during the preservation process.

  3. Isn’t it Amazing that Assocarni has exactly the opposite opinion than Betsy Booren? They said that Italians eat way less meat than other Europeans and Americans and Australians And Italian prosciuttos’ quality is better than Spanish, German, ecc. ones as they don’t use nitrites and nitrates, so this all “thing” is not an Italian business.

  4. How many teens eat salame and posciutto everyday at school at 11.00 o’clock, then eat burgers or other kind of processed meat at home? A lot, here in Italy fast foods are considered staples by teenagers and their families. What you say about the difference between Northern and Southern Italy is correct, it is enormous but Assocarni (meat lobby) has immediately reacted against Oms, with the help, go figure, of oncologists and famous nutritionists (payed by AIDEPI, Ferrero and other multinational association).

    1. Thanks for sharing Lola, that is unfortunate that the health community is not giving out sound advice rather than giving “sponsored” advice.

  5. While I’m sure everything you said about the mediterranean diet is true, saying that the WHO found that processed meats cause cancer is misleading. What was found was that eating 50 g of processed meats EVERY DAY can increase a person’s chances of having cancer. In a healthy varied diet, nobody should be eating the same thing every day. In one week, I’ll eat pork, beef, chicken, turkey, trout, shrimp, tuna and maybe some bacon or sausage along with an even larger variety of fruits and vegetables.

    1. Hi Britt, Processed does not only include bacon or sausage but most processed meats and that includes luncheon meats. So consider that 50 grams is about 1 1/2 ounces. In the US (and in Greece) it is very common for someone to be eating a sandwich with turkey or ham everyday for lunch, so yes it is pretty easy to get that amount every day if you consider that 1 slice of luncheon meat (ham, turkey etc) is 30 grams or 1 ounce and most places put more than that in a sandwich.