It’s not been a good year for meat, or meat eaters. Hot on the heels of the horse meat crisis, newly published research has suggested a link between the regular consumption of processed meat, including bacon and sausages, and a greater risk of premature mortality through heart disease or cancer.
To some this is old news, or perhaps confirms what they had already feared. The Weston A. Price foundation has long spoken out against the dangers of processed food in general, and the latest research makes for some uncomfortable reading. This is also not some half baked study, it is a major piece of global research involving a statistical population of over 400,000 participants over a number of years.
There is already plenty of comment on the findings, what the key risks are and whether a grilled sausage with a high meat content is ‘safe’, so I’m going to leave that to the dieticians and health professionals as I’m only going to repeat what others are saying. However, the fact that is not so widely reported, and bothers me greatly, is the impact on the poor, and particularly their children.
As we saw in the recent discovery of horse meat in cheap burgers and ready meals it was food products targeted at those on lower incomes that carried the greatest risk. This is also (although not exclusively) the sector that is dominated by processed red meat products. Sausages, burgers, frankfurters, meatballs, ham, luncheon meat etc. are also staples of the diets of families with children.
As a parent I am well aware of the challenge of picking family meals that are healthy and that children will want to eat. My wife and I have been eating a mostly vegetarian diet for the past few months, but my son is a hardened carnivore and beans and lentils don’t have wide appeal. On a restricted budget sausages and meatballs make a little money go a long way, and are universally liked, so we have something of a problem if there is a genuine risk to their health through regular consumption.
The problem is further compounded for those forced to use food banks. Many food banks cannot accept fresh food or perishables since demand is unpredictable and this restricts donations to canned, bottled and dried goods. Buying food for a local food bank I’ve noticed that many of the canned meals involve things like hot dogs, ham, sausages and meatballs etc. and so these are often the kind of things that are given (for all the right reasons) and then distributed.
So where does this leave us?
We could choose to ignore it: After all, there have been many, often contradictory, food ‘scares’ in recent years and you could reasonably arrive at a diet of ‘cake and biscuits’ if you take note of everything as a friend of mine put it. But there is growing evidence that processed food is not great for us, and certainly not as nature intended. According to American nutricianist, Sally Fallon, “heart disease was quite rare before 1920—so rare that the electrocardiograph (which performs the test now commonly known as an electrocardiogram [ECG]), developed to diagnose coronary heart disease, was considered a waste of time and quickly rejected. Apparently, no one suffered from clogged arteries at that time.” (quote from Nourishing Traditions, New Trends Publishing Inc ISBN: 978-0967089737).
We could cut out meat completely: This goes further than the recommendations of the research, but for some it has been an understandable response to the scandals of recent weeks. Supermarkets are reporting an upsurge in the sale of vegetarian ready-meals and alternatives like Quorn® as people have lost confidence in meat products. Dropping meat is difficult for families like ours with children who’ve grown up on the stuff and are not keen on vegetables as a side-portion. However, as we’ve started to cook more vegetarian food, some of our children have taken an interest – one actually prefers it. So just because veg doesn’t feature so much in our family diets right now, we shouldn’t rule it out and we could be surprised.
Reduce our intake of processed red meats: Switching to non-processed and/or white meats (chicken and turkey) or reducing the proportion of meat in a dish is the response proposed by the report and it can be achievable, but depending on your reliance on or enjoyment of sausages and the like it will come at a cost. For some, it’s going to be a simple case of paying more for cuts of meat, provided of course your family can live with the change. For others, whose budgets are already cut to the bone, the choice is far more difficult.
With some good ideas and confidence in the kitchen, preparing tasty and nutricious meat-based alternatives on a budget is possible, but even then they are unlikely to be as cheap as your budget banger. I’m blessed with parents who taught me the basics of cooking when I was a child, for which I’m grateful. In these days of microwaves, ready meals and frantic lives, the closest many come to home cooking is what they see on TV. When you’re under pressure day after day to balance likes, dislikes, food allergies and a diminishing budget then the collateral damage is creativity. Ironically it’s that creativity, together with confidence and good ideas that can help to make the difference. The ability to make use of some simple, nutricious and cheap ingredients should be absolutely within anybody’s grasp, but unfortunately these days that’s far from the case.
I’m really concerned that, yet again in our society, the biggest losers here will be the poor. This issue may not have the immediate impact of cuts in benefits, but if a change in diet can lead to longer and healthier lives for a a very large section of our society then it has to be taken seriously.
I started this blog just before the horse meat scandal broke, and I was stunned how timely it was. I’m now more convinced than ever that some inspiration, and a little time spent in the kitchen can feed a family healthily on the tightest of budgets. The crunch point is confidence, and for some this will need the encouragement of others and a commitment to teach the simple culinary skills that they somehow missed out on.
How can we help to bridge that gap? Is there someone we can come alongside as individuals or a community group and help them and their families towards a healthier life?
pic copyright (c) Artizone, Dallas. Used under terms of a Creative Commons License