I’ve been reading that processed meats (such as deli meats and pre-packaged turkey slices) are not healthy to eat (because of preservatives, as well as processed foods in general being inferior to whole foods). I was wondering if the same can be said of organic chicken sausage brands, such as Bilinski and Al Fresco? Bilinski claims not to use preservatives (No Nitrates, No Nitrites, No Sodium Lactate). Would these chicken sausages still fall under the category of processed foods, and as such, something I should avoid? Or are they a quick, healthy option to help meet my protein needs? Your insight is much appreciated!
But here it is wise to note some limitations of epidemiological studies. In epidemiology, large numbers of people are observed over long time frames to draw conclusions about what habits or dietary patterns are associated with disease or health. The trouble is, when the populations studied are enormous, the data isn’t as detailed as could be managed with a smaller study, and the scientists have to make educated guesses as to why certain patterns may be associated with diseases. In other words, the mechanisms of why red meats or processed meats cause cancer is still not certain. There is evidence linking higher intakes of nitrate and nitrite to prostate cancer, as well as evidence for increased risk of colorectal cancer, so nitrate and nitrite-free options like the ones you listed are likely to be lower risk, but other components may be involved as well, such as heme iron and heterocyclic amines formed during high-heat cooking/barbecuing.
I’m not aware of any study that has tested for differential disease risk among people who eat organic processed meat products vs. non-organic processed meats.
A second issue to consider is the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) during high heat cooking of meat products. When meat is grilled or barbecued, carcinogenic compounds are formed. (The amount formed is greater in meat that is well-done or charred.) This reaction does not have to do with preservatives or chemicals in the meat, so nitrate/nitrite-free items would hold no advantage here. Marinating before cooking can reduce HCA formation, as can using other cooking methods like baking, sautéing, steaming, etc., instead of grilling.
Personally, I think that choosing a brand of chicken sausage that contains nothing but chicken, herbs and spices shouldn’t be a concern. I believe that the avoidance of nitrates and nitrates makes them a better choice than most processed meats and I include nitrate free chicken sausage and turkey deli meat in my diet. (I absolutely love Al Fresco chicken sausage, for the record. For lunch meats, I buy either Hormel Natural Choice, Boar’s Head All-Natural line, or Hartford Reserve Natural Turkey Breast: all are nitrate/nitrite free) You don’t have to necessarily buy organic meats, though, to get a product without nitrate or nitrite, just do some label-sleuthing and read ingredients.
Lastly, keep your meats low in carcinogenic HCAs by marinating, removing any charred pieces, and sautéing or baking instead of grilling or barbecuing.
Thanks for the great question!