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Rate Your Plate: Three Things for Your Memorial Day Picnics and Barbeques

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Memorial Day is right around the corner, and picnic season is in full bloom. That means lots of people are fixing fruit salads, readying the spinach dip and putting together sandwiches full of cold cuts. Grilling, too, is in order.

But some people may be rethinking their picnic and barbeque menus after the International Agency for Research on Cancer recently declared that processed meats are known human carcinogens. Does this mean giving up ham sandwiches or grilled hot dogs this Memorial Day?

Not necessarily.

Eating processed meats in moderation will not cause cancer – a message some mainstream media seem to have gotten wrong.

As our previous blog on this issue underscored, although the IARC did say that processed meats are known human carcinogens, the carcinogenic effect is relatively weak. How weak? The agency estimates that eating six slices of bacon every day for your entire life would raise your lifetime probability of developing colon cancer by 18 percent – from 4.7 percent to 5.5 percent.

Most of us don’t eat nearly that much bacon.

This is not to say that the agency’s warning should be taken lightly. If you’re in the habit of eating processed meats on a regular basis, you should seriously consider making a change.

But it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that processed meats aren’t the best thing for you.

The cancer concern raised by the international agency is just one more warning light in a the long list of drawbacks linked to processed meats, which include unhealthy loads of sodium, saturated fat and other additives.

If you decide to go ahead with that ham sandwich or hot dog this weekend, EWG’s Food Scores database can help you find the best ones. Take these factors into consideration:

Nitrites & Nitrates

Sodium and potassium nitrite/nitrate are used to cure meats. During the curing process and in the acidic environment of your stomach, these compounds can turn into nitrosamines, which are carcinogens. So, when you choose your processed meats, check the product’s ingredient list and avoid those that have added nitrites and nitrates.


Antibiotics & Hormones

Another important factor is antibiotic and hormone use. Conventionally raised animals are usually given antibiotics to promote faster growth and prevent sickness, not just as treatment for disease. This antibiotic overuse promotes bacterial resistance, creating superbugs. Similarly, most animals, with the exception of chickens, are also given other growth promoters, such as hormones. These hormones and growth promoters may remain in meat and can affect the endocrine, immune and nervous systems of humans that consume it. Organic meats come from animals that are not given any of these unnecessary supplements, so buying organic is a better idea. And some companies that are not actually organic also make a point of not using antibiotics and/or hormones in nontherapeutic ways, so they are good options, too. Again, check the labels.

Environmental Impact

Meat production releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. Beef is the second largest contributor, releasing more than twice the amount of carbon dioxide as pork and turkey, and nearly five times as much as chicken. If meat is on your picnic menu, chicken is generally a better option if you’re factoring in the climate and environmental impact. Or you can go one step further and skip meat altogether in favor of vegetarian meat options – their environmental impact is significantly lower.


As Memorial Day rolls around, follow these tips and use EWG’s Food Scores database and Healthy Living app to help you identify the best choices for your weekend picnics and barbeques. With more than 80,000 products, Food Scores can help you find everything you need, not only for this weekend but all year long.


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