The future is in our past -
My heart sank last week when it was announced that salt meat, the staple of the Newfoundland diet, might cause cancer. A study published in the Journal, Cancer Causes and Control, assessed the risk of colorectal cancer associated with the consumption of red and 'pickled' meats in 1,204 patients in the province.
That took me back years to a time when studies were considered to be absolute truth, and advice coming from them changed the eating habits of entire populations. If you are old enough, you will certainly remember the rolled oats craze.
But what sticks is the ridicule many of us had to endure at the hands of medical professionals, from outside the province, because we ate the lowly Jiggs dinner. It was hard not to feel ashamed that we loved Jiggs dinners so much.
There were many evils connected with this favourite meal. First of all, there was the fat, then there was the salt, and we were assured that there wasn't a single vitamin left after all the cooking.
Many of us, not wanting to be considered stupid, when hobnobbing with those cosmopolitan outsiders, gave up Jiggs dinners and embraced the modern diet found in the major supermarkets - chips, soft drinks and prepared foods. That would appear to have been a huge mistake.
The body needs fat? Fat from meat is natural and can be controlled in cooking. The best way to cook is boiling because it seems grilling produces numerous half-burned products, which flavour the meat but are also thought to be carcinogenic.
Soaking before cooking, until most of the salt is removed, can also control salt intake. But the shocking thing is, contrary to what we have been told, tests on boiled vegetables show that the overall vitamin losses are relatively modest.
Truth to tell the Jiggs dinner is a balanced meal. As well as the meat, cabbage, carrots, turnip and potatoes provide the vegetables (rarely eaten any other way) and dumplings provide the grain products that are needed daily.
The study, which originated at Memorial University, raised my hackles when its principle author, Dr Peter Wang, said in the news release, "While little has been written about the distinct dietary characteristics of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, given the frequency and quantity of pickled meat consumption, Newfoundland and Labrador is probably matched by no other population in the world."
Apparently the offending agent is sodium nitrate, used to cure the meat, which, it is said, is converted to the carcinogenic compound sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrate is a preserving agent for hot dogs, bacon, salami, ham and other cured deli meats. Why single out the lowly salt meat and, what's more, offend us all by calling it 'pickled' meat?
It's hard to imagine that people who come to this province to work are still viewing us as backward. Yet, the narrow focus of this study seems to suggest just that! When one looks outside the preconceived notions of dietary habits, it isn't difficult to imagine that Newfoundland isn't the only population where the consumption of nitrates holds a place in the national psyche. Think Italy for example!
Newfoundlanders interviewed about the study thought that it might be prudent to give up salt meat consumption. That is deeply saddening. What are the poorest people going to eat if they give up eating the nutritious Jiggs dinner? Hot dogs, processed meat, donuts, French fries and cookies, which are regarded as five cancer causing foods?
All is not lost, however, for, when researching this topic, what should pop up but a study from Japan's Kyorin University School of Medicine in Tokyo, which says dietary nitrites may be beneficial for heart health? Another study from Michigan State University went so far as to suggest that the compound might be nutritious.
Dr. Wang's study is the not the first to make a connection between nitrates/nitrites and cancer. Several decades ago there was a similar outcry about nitrates. The media had a field day! There was no media attention when the National Academy of Sciences, the American Cancer Society and the National Research Council said that there is no cancer risk from nitrates.
It's hard not to remember the confusion caused when Newfoundlanders were first told that they had to give up their staple diet in order to maintain their health. The elderly population were left in a quandary. What could they eat if they couldn't eat the customary meat and vegetables? One woman lived out the rest of her life subsisting on crackers and margarine. She took the advice to heart! No one counselled her on nutrition.
There are many factors at play in cancer, not the least of which is stress. The quantity of food eaten may also play a role. Should there be another study to examine whether processed meat is the true culprit? Maybe!
But will we be any wiser in the end? With all the conflicting advice, which can never be proven beyond a doubt, wouldn't it be better to stick with the traditional and believe the ancestors were smart enough to know a balanced meal when they ate it?