This past fall, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), came out with a new report stating processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans”. The report looked at daily consumers of processed meat and concluded that each 50 gram portion increases the risk of colon cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of two pieces of bacon or two slices of ham. Processed meat being associated with increased cancer risk is not new information- it’s what we as oncology dietitians have been telling our patients for years. However, the way this report classified processed meat is what made people (and the media) get pretty worked up!
Processed meat includes hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, and any other meat that has been cured, smoked, salted or otherwise changed to enhance flavor or improve preservation. By that definition, it would also include most turkey and chicken breast found behind the deli counter. At this point, we do not know how processed meat influences cancer risk, but some think it may have something to do with compounds known as nitrates and nitrites which may damage the cells in our GI tract.
It’s important to note that the WHO report cited studies documenting the association between processed meat and increased cancer risk. An association is a long ways away from a cause and effect relationship. The other big piece of this puzzle is that people who are consuming processed meat daily are probably not the ones eating 5-10 servings of fruits/vegetables per day and exercising on a regular basis. So is it the processed meat consumption or the lack of beneficial diet and lifestyle factors leading to an increased cancer risk? It’s hard to tell based on current research.
Can processed meat be included in a healthy diet? Yes, I think so. However, these foods should be consumed in smaller portions and less often. Have them for a treat rather than a daily staple. This is why I am always on the search for new lunch options- especially for my husband who would eat a salami sandwich daily if he could.
Roasted chickpea pitas with dill yogurt sauce are a great alternative!
Chickpeas are healthy, inexpensive, versatile and easy to prepare. They are a good source of protein and fiber. Roasting the chickpeas creates a nice crunchy texture. The spices I used do give them some heat, so feel free to adjust if you are sensitive to spice. You can roast the chickpeas at the start of the week to have them available to incorporate into pitas, wraps or salads. They make a great snack by themselves as well!
- For the filling:
- 1 15oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- For the yogurt sauce:
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons fresh dill, minced
- 1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- salt and pepper to taste
- For Serving:
- whole wheat pita bread
- 1 tomato, sliced
- ¼ red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cups arugula
- In a bowl, combine chickpeas with olive oil, paprika, black pepper, turmeric and cayenne pepper.
- Spread chickpeas onto a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.
- Meanwhile, make the yogurt sauce. Mix the Greek yogurt, dill, lemon, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl.
- To serve, halve the pita bread. Spread some yogurt sauce onto one side of the pita then add the chickpeas, tomato, onion and arugula.