The hidden health hazards of meat sausages

| 17 May 2023
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“The hidden health hazards of vegan sausages” was a real headline in The Telegraph last week. The article tells a familiar story – bashing vegan junk food. We are seeing a lot more of this recently, but really it just reflects how the meat industry is on the back foot.

The article says plant-based meats contain “an unappetising smorgasbord of ingredients, none of which you would find in your cupboard at home”. Then lists methylcellulose, calcium alginate, sodium sulphite and pea protein. These are all ingredients found in Heck meat-free chipolatas. However, the same company’s Chicken Chipolatas, for example, contain sodium sulphite, ascorbic acid, citric acid, citrus fibre and calcium alginate (so, used in meaty and vegan sausages!) and their Family Favourite Sausages contain dextrose monohydrate, sodium sulphite, ascorbic acid, citric acid, citrus fibre and beef collagen casings – I don’t think you’d find any of that in the average kitchen cupboard.

Interestingly, VBites Lincolnshire Style vegan sausages, for example, contain more familiar ingredients than the meaty ones above; Water, Wheat Gluten, Rapeseed Oil, Onion, Soya Protein, Wholemeal Wheat Rusk, Salt, Sugar, Dried Yeast, Herbs, Yeast Extract, Thickener: Methyl Cellulose; Natural Flavouring, Preservative: Potassium Sorbate; Garlic Powder, Barley Malt Extract.

The fact is, most processed foods like sausages and burgers (vegan and non-vegan alike), contain stabilisers, binding agents, gelling agents, preservatives and so on. That’s the nature of processed foods and one of the reasons why they are not good for our health. That said, eaten in moderation, some plant-based processed foods may still offer some health benefits; as illustrated by one study looking at the health effects of plant-based mince, burgers, sausages and meatballs from the Meatless Farm. Compared to those eating red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and cheese, in just four weeks, those eating the plant-based alternatives experienced positive changes in their gut bacteria that may confer significant and wide-ranging health benefits.

Viva! do not recommend eating lots of processed foods, but it’s noteworthy that those containing high-quality ingredients can promote beneficial health effects.


Why meat harms

If we are going to have a discussion about the undesirable contents of food, we need to look at the many compounds found in meat that are linked to an increased risk of disease, including saturated fat, cholesterol, animal protein and inflammatory components such as trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), heterocyclic amines and haem iron.

The type of iron found in meat is called haem iron and it is associated with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease. Plant foods contain non-haem iron, which is not linked to disease and is absorbed by the body as and when it requires it. Haem iron is thought to be harmful because it contributes to the formation of free radicals and N-nitroso compounds or NOCs (which are also found in processed meat). Free radicals are unstable and highly reactive molecules capable of damaging biologically important molecules such as DNA, proteins, carbohydrates and lipids and in doing so, may lead to cancer. Many NOCs are carcinogens and there is evidence for a role of NOCs in gastric, oesophageal, nasopharyngeal and bowel cancers.

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed in the body when protein or fat combine with sugar, but they are also naturally present in uncooked animal foods and cooking, especially grilling, roasting, searing or frying them results in the formation of new AGEs. They cause inflammation and oxidative stress (cell damage), which can lead to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease and may also interfere with weight.

It gets worse: three groups of potentially cancer-causing compounds can develop during the preservation or cooking of meat. They include NOCs formed during food preservation, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) formed during cooking and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) formed during cooking. Find out more about why meat harms here.


Palm oil

The article says how palm oil is “currently in the dock for causing wildlife habitat destruction” but it is livestock farming for meat and dairy that is the single largest driver of wildlife loss, not palm oil for vegan sausages! Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil worldwide and half of all packaged products (both vegan and non-vegan) contain palm oil – from ice cream and instant noodles to shampoo and lipstick, the demand for cheap palm oil is steadily rising. Many vegans avoid palm oil because of its links with wildlife destruction and did you know… palm kernel meal is a lucrative by-product of palm oil production, which along with soya, is used as farmed animal feed with more than a tenth of global production fed to British livestock and companion animals with little, if any, coming from sustainable sources?


Sustainable eating is cheaper and healthier

They say that Heck has cut its range because demand has fallen – however, it’s more likely that the cost-of-living crisis is making people cut back on how much they spend on certain foods. Sales of ambient/chilled foods appear to have fallen, but sales of frozen foods, which are cheaper, have not. Research from the University of Oxford, published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health found that in high-income countries vegan diets were the most affordable and reduced food costs by up to one third. Viva! will be releasing a budget V7 plan soon but we have written a blog on this too.

The Telegraph article appears to take a bit of U-turn saying how “it seems mad that an animal should be reared and slaughtered for a service station sausage or a rubbery hot dog, both of which can be replicated impressively by modern plant-based technology”. They do also admit that “real” meat sausages aren’t healthy, and that processed meat has been designated as a Group 1 carcinogen by the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Again though, they suggest that ultra-processed food “damages the planet”. They say: “The food system necessary for its production, and of which it is the necessary product, is the leading cause of declining biodiversity and the second largest contributor to global emissions.” This needs some clarification as it is NOT the food system in its entirety but animal agriculture specifically that is damaging the planet; animal agriculture contributes a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions and is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. A wealth of evidence shows animal-based foods are by far the most damaging in terms of land use, water use, air pollution, deforestation, eutrophication (dead zones in water resulting from the runoff of excess nutrients from farms) and loss of biodiversity.

In summary, this article questions the nutritional value of plant-based meat alternatives while completely ignoring the widely accepted detrimental health effects, not to mention the disastrous environmental effects of meat and dairy. Poor journalism!

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
Justine joined Viva! in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. After working as a campaigner, then researcher and writer, she is now Viva!’s head of research and her work focuses on animals, the environment and health. Justine’s scientific training helps her research and write both in-depth scientific reports, such as White Lies and the Meat Report, as well as easy-to-read factsheets and myth-busting articles for consumer magazines and updates on the latest research. Justine also recently wrote the Vegan for the Planet guide for Viva!’s Vegan Now campaign.

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