· By Julia Boase

What Do I Need to Know about Ham as a Parent? A Practical Guide to the Health Concerns with Processed Meats

Earlier this term you might have seen there was a kerfuffle over in WA as they tried to ban ham from school canteens. I had a lot of parents ask me why, and what was wrong with ham, so I thought I’d break it down for you.


First of all this is actually old news. Way back in 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that processed meats (all meats that have been transformed by either curing, salting, fermenting, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation, for example ham, bacon, salami, frankfurts, hot dogs, beef jerky among others) were classified as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning that there was substantial evidence to say they cause cancer, specifically colorectal cancer, but to a lesser extent pancreatic and prostate cancer.  Red meat ( beef, veal, pork, lamb) was classified as level 2A “probably carcinogenic”, meaning that there was more limited evidence from epidemiological studies to link it to colorectal cancer, but the association was still there. 


To be clear, this finding does not mean that you will get colon cancer by simply eating a piece of ham, but rather that your risk increases if it’s a regularly consumed. The report found that there was an 18% increased risk of developing colorectal cancer for every 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily. Please note - this does not mean you have an 18% chance of getting colorectal cancer, but rather your baseline risk increases by 18%. You own personal baseline risk is hard to estimate (it may be influenced by factors such as your genetic predisposition), but in Australia the life time risk of getting colorectal cancer for the general public is about 8.2% by age 85yrs. This means if you eat 50g or more daily of processed meats, your risk then becomes 9.6%. For red meat, the risk is a little harder to calculate but its thought it could increase by 17% for every 100g portion of red meat consumed daily. 


By now you’re probably wondering but why does it cause or increase your risk of colorectal cancer? Good question! In short we don’t really know, but we suspect that the breakdown of haemoglobin (the compound found in meat that gives it its red colour) in the gut, produces N-nitroso compounds which may cause damage to the cells lining the gut. Processed meats are often preserved using nitrates or nitrites, which also make these n-nitroso compounds, hence meaning they can potentially do more damage. Another possible cause is linked to the cooking of these meats. Charring or burning of meat together with high temperatures possibly causes chemicals to be present on the surface of the meat which also may contribute to increasing the risk of colon cancer. 


Should I stop eating processed meats? What about red meat?

Well that’s entirely up to you, but I don’t personally think you need to panic and there’s ways you can safely limit your intake.


For red meat (beef, lamb, pork) The Cancer Council recommends limiting your intake to 455g per week. You may want to do some quick maths here as you writing your grocery list and think about how much this equates to for your family. If you’re used to serving more red meat than this, here are some ideas on ways you can reduce it


  • bulk up minced dishes by including more veggies - eg grated carrot or zucchini or a tin of brown lentils
  • Serve smaller cuts of steak and add more salad or vegetables to the meal, plus a serve of wholegrain carbohydrates
  • Work out your weekly meal plan so that you’re only serving red meat based meals 3 times per week and divide the others between poultry, fish or a vegetarian option

Whilst the cancer council does recommend avoiding processed meats, I think you can consume them wisely. I personally love a little bit of prosciutto or nduja on pizza and I don’t see myself giving it up anytime soon! For me this would probably be my only regular source of processed meats and would equate to 50 -100g not even every week. 

My kids enjoy ham or salami on a pizza (or on a pizza muffin in their lunchbox) and I sometimes add some grilled bacon to my eldest’s sandwiches for some extra flavour. When I get can it, I buy nitrate free versions, but I don’t always find these easy to come by and they are more expensive. 


We all know kids can be fussy, and whilst I could easily tell you to try a BBQ chook as a sandwich filling instead of ham, the reality is many kids won’t eat it. So instead, I’d say try and reduce the amount of processed meats you're offering (if you add 2 slices, try just 1). We routinely mix up our pizza offerings so its not always a processed meat on top. My kids love a potato, dill and provolone (cheese) pizza, but they also love salami and I’m happy to keep offering it, just not every day. 


Sandwich Ideas that Don’t include Ham

Hummus and Vegemite


Cheese + vegemite

Cucumber + cheese

Chicken, avocado and Mayo

Tofu (there are lots of marinated options ready to purchase these days, try the Macro Wholefoods range from Woolworths)

Chicken and lettuce (my child enjoys BBQ sauce with this combo)

You might also like 50 sandwich and wrap ideas from basic to brilliant!


Pizza Toppings that don’t include ham

Potato, dill and provolone

Potato, rosemary, sea salt and olive oil

Tomato, cheese + basil (Margarita)

Pesto + mozarella

roasted zucchini + ricotta (see recipe here)


What else can I do to prevent colon cancer?

I’m glad you asked! As a dietitian I like to focus on what we can add to diets, not just what we need to take out. Just like red and processed meats have been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, diets rich in wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds have been linked to a decrease in colon cancer (amongst other health conditions). 

As you’re reducing the amount of red or processed meats you eat, why not try serving your nightly main meal with a salad (or just cut up raw carrot + cucumber sticks if you’re kids don’t do mixed salads yet), a side of corn or homemade potato fries and and a fruit plate? It's an easy way to fill kids up with more plant foods. 

1 comment

  • Great post! Thanks for explaining this in a clear way. I’ve been wondering about processed meats lately and this has helped affirm my current approach.

    Samantha on

Leave a comment