READING, United Kingdom — A fasting-growing weed in your garden may be the key to making processed meats healthier to eat. Researchers from the University of Reading say using Japanese knotweed reduces the cancer-causing effects of other processed food preservatives like nitrite.
Their study reveals that nitrite is a common preservative manufacturers add to a wide range of meats such as bacon and sausage. However, nitrite also a carcinogenic compound and previous studies have found that eating processed meats and diets high in nitrite increase the risk of developing cancer. Replacing the preservative with natural alternatives however, cuts this cancer-causing connection, putting these meats on the same level as healthier proteins options.
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The team’s PHYTOME project developed processed red meat that added natural substitutes such as rosemary, green tea, and resveratrol — an extract coming from Japanese Knotweed. Researchers note that this plant in particular is a weed that invades gardens and buildings.
The project cooked up and compared nitrite levels in the both traditional cured meats using standard preservatives and those adding natural alternatives. Although cured meats have a natural level of nitrites in them before the preservation process, results show that nitrite levels are far lower in meats using natural extracts instead. The knotweed meats had the same levels of nitrite as minimally processed white meat.
“The ongoing worries about highly processed red meat have often focused on the role of nitrite, and its links with cancer. The PHYTOME project tackled the issue by creating processed red meat products that replace additives with plant-based alternatives,” says Professor of Nutrition and Food Science Gunter Kuhnle in a university release. “Our latest findings show that using natural additives in processed red meat reduces the creation of compounds in the body that are linked to cancer.”
“Surprisingly, the natural additives seemed to have some protective effects even when the red meat still contained nitrite. This suggests that natural additives could be used to reduce some of the potentially harmful effects of nitrite, even in foods where it is not possible to take out nitrite preservatives altogether,” Prof. Kuhnle continues.
Along with raising cancer risk, previous studies show eating just five ounces of processed meats raises a person’s risk for heart disease. Other reports even point to these foods contributing to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings appear in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.