Can 'healthier' sausages fortified with berry antioxidants reduce cancer risk?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Adding antioxidants to processed meat could make them healthier without altering the taste of the final product, said researcher Eva Tornberg.
Adding antioxidants to processed meat could make them healthier without altering the taste of the final product, said researcher Eva Tornberg.

Related tags Nutrition Cancer

Could sausages fortified with antioxidants reduce the occurrence of colon cancer – and bring meat out of the negative spotlight after a WHO report classed processed meat as carcinogenic?

In a three-year study, researchers at Lund University in Sweden and other European research institutions will extract antioxidants from berries and plants and add them to processed meats including sausages and patties.

They will then track occurrence of the cancer in mice fed with either standard or fortified meats.

The addition of antioxidants should minimise oxidation in processed meat products, which theoretically will lead to a reduction of colon cancer.

Eva Tornberg, professor of food technology at Lund University, told FoodNavigator that she hoped the result would be a new, healthier sausage. She said that adding antioxidants shouldn’t alter the taste but marketing products like this is not always easy. 

“Some antioxidants can be a bit bitter, but there shouldn’t be a problem – the content levels are low because the antioxidants are so efficient. If you’re developing a healthy product it has to be tasty,”​ she said.

An antidote to WHO cancer report?

Processed meats are currently under fire after the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) cancer agency classified their consumption as ‘carcinogenic to humans’​ (Group 1). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said its decision is “based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.

This prompted a series of sensationalist headlines given that the change put sausages, bacon and cured meats in the same box as tobacco and alcohol. Buried way down, or in some cases ignored altogether as FoodNavigator's Nathan Gray pointed out in a comment​ at the time, was the context: that Group 1 classification is an indication that the products definitely do cause cancer and not the levels of risk. 

Tornberg suggested WHO might have jumped the gun – the link between processed meats and cancer is not in doubt but what isn’t yet clear is the reason for it. The use of purely epidemiological studies to draw the conclusions is therefore problematic, she said.

“Meat is a nutritious and non-allergenic food product, with high levels of protein as well high levels of necessary minerals and vitamin B. Making a serious statement like [the one from WHO] about such a basic food product will perhaps make people no longer adhere to the warnings,” ​ Tornberg said.

Whilst her new research could lead to a healthier sausage, packed with free-radical fighting antioxidants, it could also lead to a simpler solution.

“If our hypothesis proves to be true, it will indicate that the risk of colon cancer can be reduced by eating a balanced diet,”​ Tornberg said. In other words: together with meat, eat lots of vegetables and other things that contain antioxidants. But they must be consumed at the same time, she added, because the free radicals created during oxidation are short-lived.

Sales of processed meats increased in Europe last year, according to the latest sales figures​ from Euromonitor. Levels of consumption per person are harder to come by, however.

Colon cancer is one the most common cancers in Sweden, with over 5,000 new patients annually.

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