Is Ham Considered Red Meat? A Look at Its Health Effects

Ham is a popular ingredient in sandwiches, breakfasts, appetizers and main courses, especially around the holidays But despite its ubiquity, there seems to be confusion around whether ham technically counts as red meat

The distinction is important, as research shows that red and processed meats are linked to health risks like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. So should ham be avoided like other red meats, or does its status as a cured pork product set it apart?

In this article, I’ll cover what exactly defines red meat, ham’s nutritional profile, and most importantly, how eating it affects your health compared to other meats. Read on to learn whether ham belongs in the “red meat” category.

What Makes a Meat “Red Meat”?

Red meat is defined as meat that comes from mammals and contains higher levels of a protein called myoglobin. Myoglobin is what gives red meat its distinctive red color when exposed to oxygen.

Some examples of traditional red meats include:

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Veal
  • Goat
  • Bison
  • Elk

In contrast, poultry and fish contain less myoglobin and are thus considered “white meat.”

So while processed in different ways, ham is fundamentally just a cut of pork, which firmly places it in the red meat category.

Nutrition Profile of Ham

Ham is a cured and cooked pork product that comes from the hind leg of a pig. Here is the basic nutrition information for a 3.5 ounce serving of sliced ham:

  • Calories: 139
  • Fat: 5g
  • Saturated fat: 1.7g
  • Protein: 22g
  • Sodium: 1,290mg

As you can see, ham is high in protein and also delivers a considerable amount of saturated fat and sodium.

During the curing process, ham is treated with salts, nitrates, phosphates and other preservatives. This adds a substantial amount of sodium.

The curing and smoking processes also introduce carcinogenic compounds that may have health implications with frequent high intake.

How Eating Ham Affects Your Health

Now that we’ve established ham’s status as red meat and looked at its nutrition stats, let’s discuss how it impacts your health compared to other meats.

Cancer Risk

The World Health Organization has classified processed meats like ham as a Group 1 carcinogen. This means there is sufficient evidence that processed meats cause colorectal cancer in humans.

Studies show a 17% increased risk of colorectal cancer for every 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily. The carcinogenic compounds created by curing and smoking are the likely culprits.

Red meat has also been linked to increased colorectal cancer risk, although the evidence is not quite as strong as for processed meat. Still, studies show a 15% higher risk for every 100 grams of red meat consumed per day.

Heart Health

Research has found correlations between higher processed red meat intake and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The saturated fat and sodium in ham may contribute by raising blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels.

One study found a 19% higher risk of coronary heart disease for every 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily.

As for unprocessed red meat, some studies link it to heart disease while others show no effect. More research is still needed on fresh red meat’s cardiovascular impact.

Diabetes Risk

A comprehensive meta-analysis found that processed meat consumption was associated with a 19% higher risk of diabetes. The Reasons are still unclear, but some experts speculate that preservatives like nitrates impair insulin secretion.

Unprocessed fresh meats show less consistent connections to diabetes. Some studies link red meat to a slight risk while others find no effects.

Life Expectancy

Research shows that increased consumption of processed and unprocessed red meat correlates to a higher overall risk of death from all causes. Processed red meat in particular shows strong associations with reduced life expectancy.

One study estimated that reducing processed meat intake to under 20 grams per day (one slice of ham) could increase life expectancy by 2.4 years!

The Verdict on Ham

Given the wealth of research, it’s clear that frequent ham consumption carries similar health risks as other processed and unprocessed red meats. The sodium, nitrates and carcinogenic compounds make ham particularly concerning health-wise based on current evidence.

However, ham’s effects likely depend heavily on the quantity and frequency eaten. Occasional small amounts of ham as part of an overall healthy diet are unlikely to be detrimental to health. But regular large servings could increase the risk of serious chronic illnesses.

It’s also worth noting that ham provides some nutritional benefits, like protein, vitamins and minerals, so it’s not devoid of redeeming qualities. As with many foods, moderation and balance are key.

Healthier Ways to Eat Ham

If you don’t want to fully eliminate ham from your diet, here are some tips for eating it in a healthier way:

  • Limit ham to no more than 1-2 times per week.
  • Stick to a 3-4 ounce serving or less.
  • Choose lower-sodium hams when possible.
  • Avoid charring or overcooking to limit carcinogens.
  • Pair ham with antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies.
  • If using in a sandwich, opt for whole grain bread.
  • Add ham to salads for a protein boost.
  • Bake, grill or poach ham instead of frying.
  • Rinse cured ham before cooking to remove some sodium.
  • Limit other processed meats in your diet.
  • Balance with plant proteins like beans, lentils and tofu.

The Bottom Line

Ham is considered red meat, both by definition and based on its nutritional profile and health effects. Strong evidence links ham and other processed red meats to increased risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes compared to unprocessed meats.

That said, eating the occasional small serving of ham as part of a vegetable-rich diet is unlikely to negatively impact health. But regular large servings could be detrimental, especially for those with certain health conditions.

As with most foods, moderation, variety and balance are key to integrating ham into an overall nutritious way of eating.

Is Red Meat Good or Bad? – Dr.Berg


Is ham considered red or white meat?

Pork is classified a red meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. When fresh pork is cooked, it becomes lighter in color, but it is still a red meat. Pork is classed as “livestock” along with veal, lamb, and beef. All livestock are considered red meat.

Is ham not red meat?

The amount of myoglobin in pork makes it a red meat Mammals have the highest amounts of myoglobin in their meat, which is why The United States Department of Agriculture has determined that all meat from mammals is red meat, including ham, since it comes from a pig.

What meat is not red meat?

Red meat refers to beef, veal, lamb, mutton, pork, goat and venison. It does not include chicken, turkey, goose, duck, game and rabbit. Processed meat refers to any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or using preservatives.

Is ham and bacon red meat?

Processed meat includes ham, bacon, corned beef, and some sausages like salami, chorizo and hot dogs. Red meat includes all fresh, minced, and frozen beef, pork and lamb. White meat, such as chicken, and fish, are not linked to an increased risk of cancer.

What is considered red meat?

Distinguishing between the age of the animal, gastronomy considers meat from adult mammals as red meat. This includes beef, horse, mutton, venison, boar, and hare. While young mammal meat including rabbit, veal, and lamb may be considered white meat along with poultry and fish. Pork and duck are gray area meats.

Is ham good for You?

Although ham might be delicious, you might want to consider if it’s just as good for your body. That’s because ham is actually red meat. Ham is a cured meat, which means that a preservative is added to remove moisture that helps make it last longer and sustain its flavor and color.

Is Ham a red meat?

The third form is smoked curing, in which the pork hangs in a smokehouse as it soaks up smoke, which gives it extra coloring and more layers of flavor. Since it’s cured pork, ham is a processed red meat. Pork is considered a red meat because it contains an abundance of a specific protein.

Is Ham healthier than poultry?

If you’re wondering if it’s just as healthy as poultry, the answer is, well, no. That’s primarily because ham—which is made by curing pork leg—is a type of processed red meat. Ham is a type of red meat that typically includes preservatives to sustain it longer than normal.

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