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Smoked, Cured, and Pickled Meats

Before the development of refrigeration, people the world over used similar methods for preserving meat: salting, smoking, and air drying. Although curing is no longer essential in industrialized countries, our taste for salty, smoky flavors persists.

Cancers of the esophagus and stomach are common where people eat large quantities of smoked and salt-curd foods. In North America, however, deaths due to stomach cancer have decreased in recent decades, even though consumption of smoked and processed meat has increased. In part, the reason for this may be that foods cured in North America are less heavily treated with preservatives than in countries where refrigeration is not widely available. Also, most foods sold as "smoked" are not smoke-cured but are flavored with liquid smoke, a smoke extract that does not have the same carcinogenic potential.

Warning: Tyramine, a metabolic product of the amino acid tyrosine, is found at high concentrations in cured meats. It can trigger migraine attacks in susceptible people. More seriously, it can cause an abrupt rise in blood pressure, headache, and even fatal collapse in persons taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors to treat depression.

SMOKE CURING

Smoking preserves meat and fish both by slow cooking at a low temperature and by treatment with chemicals in the smoke. More than 200 components have so far been identified in smoke, including alcohols, acids, phenols, and several toxic -- and possibly cancer-causing -- substances. These chemicals inhibit the growth of microorganisms that cause meat spoilage, and the phenolic compounds slow the oxidation of fat and prevent it from becoming rancid. Smoking is now used primarily for flavor -- for example, the distinctive hickory or oak aroma associated with smoked bacon, and mesquite and other aromatic wood chips that are used to enhance the taste of grilled foods.

AIR CURING

Air curing, or preserving by dehydration, has been used for thousands of years. Drying generally concentrates some nutrients, especially minerals, but the vitamin content of dried meat is much less than that of fresh. Native peoples dried venison, buffalo meat, and fish -- sometimes mixing them with fat and dried berries -- to make a nutritious and long-keeping food. Chipped beef is an air-dried throwback to pioneer preserving methods. Prosciutto is air-cured ham. As with other preservation techniques, air curing has been superseded by refrigeration and is now used mainly to give flavor and texture, although dried meats keep well.

SALT CURING

Whether in a brine solution or a dry salt bed, salt curing draws water from the meat and from bacteria and molds through the process of osmosis. While the meat remains wholesome, the microorganisms shrivel and die. We no longer need to salt meat to store it over the winter, but the method is still used because people like the taste of salty meats, such as ham and bacon.

The more salt used in curing, the better the meat's keeping qualities but the greater the loss of nutrients. When heavily salted meat is soaked to make it palatable, even more vitamins and minerals are lost. Today's curing solutions, however, are much weaker than those formerly used, and salted meat seldom needs to be soaked before cooking.

SAUSAGES

Link sausages are usually made from pork with cereal fillers, herbs and spices, and preservatives. People with celiac disease or who are allergic to corn or wheat should avoid sausages made with corn syrup or solids or cereal fillers.

Because sausages, like ground meat, go through several stages of handling, they are more susceptible to contamination than fresh meat and should be cooked very thoroughly before consumption.

Sausages in the wurst family vary in their meat, filler, and additive content. Kosher frankfurters and bologna generally contain less filler. In addition, kosher products must be made only with approved cuts of meat; they do not contain scraps and certain organ meats.

All pork and beef sausages are high in salt and saturated fat. Reduced-fat franks, knock-wurst, and other sausages are available, but the benefits of lower fat may be offset by the higher amounts of salt added to boost flavor.

Liverwurst varies in ingredients according to the brand. While high in minerals, vitamins A and C, and the B vitamins, liverwurst is also high in saturated fat; several brands are flavored with bacon, which substantially raises the sodium content.

Dry salami and other sausages made by traditional methods are air cured, and sometimes smoked as well. Salami is the single exception to rules about discarding moldy meat; salami with a small amount of mold, or "bloom," may be eaten, provided that 1 in. (2.5 cm) of the meat surrounding the mold is cut away. Salami and other dried sausages contain high levels of saturated fat and sodium.

POTTED MEATS

Rarely eaten in North America, potted meats are popular in Europe. They are made by looking pork, duck, or goose very slowly to render the fat. The well-cooked meat is then shredded (although small joints of poultry may be left whole), mixed with some of the fat, packed in earthenware or glass jars, and sealed with the remaining fat to keep out air. The shredded meats are usually spread on bread, while the whole joints are used in hearty, long-baked legume dishes. Potted meats conserve most fo the nutrients of fresh meat, but they are extremely high in saturated fat and should be consumed only occasionally and in very small amounts.

NITRITES AND NITRATES

The reddish-pink color of cured meats, including the cold cuts at the deli counter, is due to the presence of nitrites, chemicals that enhance the effect of salt by inhibiting bacterial growth and slowing fat oxidation.

Critics claim that nitrites should be banned because they combine with amino acids during cooking and digestion to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. What's more, nitrite itself can cause tumors in laboratory animals that consume it in very high doses. But the meat industry and the government insist that nitrite should be retained because it is extremely effective against Clostridium botulinum, the microorganism that causes botulin poisoning, or botulism, they also point out that only about a fifth of the nitrites that form nitrosamines come from meats -- the rest are formed in the body from nitrates in various plant foods.

C. botulinum thrives in oxygen-free surroundings (such as sealed cans, jars, and plastic packaging), and its spores survive long boiling. If vacuum-packed or canned meats are allowed to reach 50 F (10C), any spores present may develop into active bacteria and produce the lethal toxin. Botulin toxin is destroyed at temperatures of about 160 F (70C), but cold cuts are not usually cooked before eating, and even a baked or boiled ham may not be cooked long enough to reach a high enough temperature in the center.

Not only does nitrite suppress active bacteria, but it also weakens the heat-resistant C. botulinum spores. This means that the spores can be destroyed without the need for pressure cooking and reduces the risk that spores will develop if the meat is carelessly handled.

The risk of cancer from nitrites in the doses currently used in North America is much less than the risk of contracting botulism from tainted meat. However, even these risks are smaller than the risk of coronary disease from excessive consumption of the saturated fats that are, in general, plentiful in nitrite-preserved foods. if you enjoy smoked and salted meats, make sure you consume them only occasionally and in moderate amounts.

     
     

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