|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
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.
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
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techniques, air curing has been superseded by refrigeration and is now used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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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.