Processed Meat Causes Pain

Processed meat is known to cause migraines and could cause other pain, such as fibromyalgia and joint pain. Most of this meat is made with the group of food additives known as nitrites and nitrates.

The Office on Women’s Health’s Migraine Fact Sheet1 identifies “foods that contain nitrates, such as hot dogs and lunch meat” as migraine triggers.

This fact seems well established, and I experience this migraine reaction myself.

It seems likely that these foods can cause or contribute to fibromyalgia, joint pain, and other pain.

 


 

What is Processed Meat?

“Processed meat” includes hot dogs, other sausages, ham, bacon, and lunch meat (cold cuts).

Processed Meats

  • Hot dogs​
  • Sausages
  • Salami
  • Corned beef
  • Cold cuts / lunch meat
  • Beef jerky
  • Ham
  • Bacon
  • Canned meat
  • Meat-based preparations and sauces

One formal definition, from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, is “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”2

The Agency goes on to note, “Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.”

Sodium nitrate

Unlike the sausage and bacon of past centuries, today’s processed meats contain sodium nitrite and related additives as antibacterials and to give the meats their characteristic taste and color.

Sodium nitrite is toxic. At a high enough dose, much higher than the amount in processed meats, it can be fatal. Just how harmful it is in the amount used in processed meat is controversial, but it does seem to unquestionably be a poison.

Nitrites under some conditions form carcinogenic nitrosamines. Manufacturers add vitamin C to bacon to help inhibit the formation of nitrosamines. It’s a good idea to consume foods with high vitamin C (such as orange juice) at the same time as processed meat.

Processed meat itself, by whatever mechanism, has been linked to colon cancer and stomach cancer.

Celery Powder

Celery powder can be used in processed meat with about the same results as sodium nitrite. Why? It is nitrite in a natural, vegetable form.

Does it act the same way as sodium nitrite in the body? Does it form carcinogenic substances? I have not been able to find any information on these questions, which remain controversial.

Labeling

The USDA requires label terms (as well as the ingredient list) that indicate some of the additives that are used.

  • Cured: Nitrites or nitrates added
  • Uncured: “Celery powder,” “vegetable powder,” or other natural vegetable sources of nitrates added
  • Natural: Should not have nitrites or nitrates added, but may have “celery powder” or “vegetable powder” added
  • Organic: Cannot have nitrites or nitrates added, but can have “celery powder” or “vegetable powder” added

 


 

Action Steps

Do you have pain caused by processed meat?

Have you ever noticed a headache, joint pain, or other pain after eating some type of processed meat, either immediately afterwards or the next morning?

If you have even once had a pain symptom from this type of food, it may be that these foods give you a background level​ of inflammation that you can’t connect to its cause.

Do you eat processed meat more than once every two weeks?

Eating something as frequently as every two weeks means that you don’t really know how the food affects you. Your body “gets used to it” and doesn’t give you the feedback it would otherwise give you.

If either is true, then I suggest experimentally avoiding processed meat.​

Experiment

As an experiment, avoid processed meat for thirty days.

The purpose is to get it fully “out of your system” and then test it.​

Step One

Strictly avoid processed meat for 30 days.

Many people rely on ham, lunch meat, sausages, or hot dogs, so I realize that the experiment may be very inconvenient. Unfortunately, the more inconvenient it is for you, the stronger the likelihood that processed meat is an unnoticed cause of pain.

Your sources may include grocery stores, delicatessens, fast food, and restaurants.

You may need to cook your own meat and use different kinds of meat for sandwiches.

Suggestions for substitutes:

  • Sliced beef roast​
  • Pork chops
  • Hamburger patties
  • Leftovers

It would probably be best not to substitute cheese, which can cause pain in some people and make the results of the experiment uninterpretable.

Step Two

Test

Then after 30 days, eat your favorite processed meat: in a large amount, or several meals in a row.

Monitor your symptoms for the next few days.

Do you see any changes in your level of pain?​

You might want to separately test “natural” or “uncured” processed meat to see if that makes a difference.

 


 

References

Migraine Fact Sheet
The Office on Women’s health

What’s the Deal with Nitrates and Nitrites Used in Meat Products? (PDF)
Jeff J. Sindelar, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin Meat Laboratory

Alternative Curing
Dr. Amanda Gipe McKeith
The Pig Site, Sep. 16, 2014

Press Release No. 240, October 26, 2015 (PDF)
International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization
IARC Monographs Evaluate Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat

Q&A on the Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat (PDF)
International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization