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Elevating Dishes: Healthier Alternatives to Processed Meats

Updated: Mar 17

Aubergine strips in rolls with pomegranate seeds on a white plate

Processed meats, including chorizo, salami, and pancetta, lend their signature smoky, umami appeal to beloved dishes like quiche Lorraine, spaghetti carbonara, and pancetta-infused risotto. However, it is important to acknowledge the guidance of the World Cancer Research Fund's Cancer Prevention Recommendations. These recommendations emphasise the need to eat 'little, if any, processed meat', given compelling evidence connecting it to colorectal cancer.

What is processed meat?

Any meat that has been preserved through methods like smoking, curing, salting, or the addition of chemical preservatives. This category includes ham, bacon, sausages (like salami, chorizo, and hot dogs), canned meat such as corned beef and Spam, and sliced luncheon meats. These preservation techniques not only extend the meat's shelf life but also enhance its flavour.

Why is processed meat considered detrimental to our health?

Nitrates and nitrites - Chemicals that are added preservatives to prolong shelf life. They’ve been shown to produce chemicals that can damage your DNA, increasing your risk of bowel cancer.

Haem - Most processed meat is a form of red meat and contains a substance called haem, which gives it its colour. Haem can trigger the formation of cancer-causing compounds which have been shown to damage the lining of the bowel.

Saturated fat - Most processed meat contains high levels of fat, particularly saturated fat. This can be bad for your health and can lead to weight gain, which is a major risk factor of cancer.

Cooking at high temperatures - Think crispy bacon or barbecued sausages; this method of cooking can increase the risk of bowel cancer as a high temperature produces a variety of chemicals that can damage the cells of the bowel.

Credit: World Cancer Research Fund

Exploring suitable substitutes for processed meats while preserving their sought-after smoky, savoury, and umami character presents a chance to welcome healthier options into our diets. Let’s reimagine our meals with choices that balance delicious taste and health-conscious aims.

Twelve wholesome ideas to replace processed meat:

1. Smoked Paprika: Smoked paprika can provide a smoky depth to your dishes without the need for actual smoked meats. It's a versatile option that works well in soups, stews, sauces, and even roasted vegetables.

2. Miso Paste: Miso paste can add a rich umami flavour to your dishes. It's particularly great in Asian-inspired dishes like stir-fries, noodle soups, and marinades.

3. Coconut Bacon: Thinly sliced and baked coconut flakes seasoned with smoky spices can mimic the texture and flavour of crispy bacon. It works well in salads, on top of baked potatoes, or as a garnish for soups.

4. Tempeh: Fermented soy-based tempeh has a nutty flavour and a firm texture that can be sliced and pan-fried to mimic the crispy texture of bacon. Marinate it with smoky spices for that desired taste.

5. Edamame “Bacon Bits”: Roast or sauté edamame beans with a blend of smoky spices to replicate the savoury appeal of bacon. These crunchy bits can be sprinkled over salads, pastas, or used as a topping for various dishes, providing a delicious, healthier alternative.

6. Smoked Tofu: Smoked tofu is readily available and can be sliced, diced, or crumbled into dishes to provide a smoky and protein-rich element.

7. Nutritional Yeast: This versatile ingredient has a cheesy, umami flavour that can help enhance the overall taste of your dishes. It's great in pasta dishes, risottos, and casseroles.

8. Sun-Dried Tomatoes: These can add a concentrated umami flavour to your dishes, especially pasta sauces, salads, and grain bowls.

9. Portobello Mushrooms: When roasted or grilled, portobello mushrooms develop a meaty texture and a savoury taste that can be quite reminiscent of certain processed meats.

10. Smoky Spices: A blend of smoky spices such as smoked paprika, cumin, and chipotle powder can be added to dishes to replicate the smokiness of processed meats.

11. Grilled or Roasted Vegetables: Select vegetables known for their smoky undertones when grilled or roasted, like aubergine, bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Once cooked, blend or puree the vegetables until smooth. Add a bit of water or vegetable broth to achieve your preferred consistency. Integrate the vegetable puree into your recipes for a natural smoky flavour. Use it in sauces, dressings, marinades, soups, or as a base for stir-fries.

12. Aubergine "Bacon": Thinly sliced and seasoned, roasted aubergine can take on a slightly crispy texture and a smoky flavour. It's a great addition to sandwiches and wraps.

By exploring and experimenting, you'll discover a myriad of alternative combinations that offer distinctive flavours and textures tailored to your dishes and preferences. Feel free to get creative!

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