Whether you prefer it honey-baked, deviled or slapped between rye, ham is one of the most popular — and inexpensive — ways to put meat on the table. But what you save in dollars now could end up costing you more later, as the disadvantages of ham make it an unhealthy choice to nourish your body.
The World Health Organization classified ham as a class 1 carcinogen in 2015. They did the same for other processed meats that use salt, smoking, curing, fermentation or additives to enhance flavor.
Understand the Age-Old Debate
Ham — along with other pork products — has been a hot topic since ancient times. In many cultures throughout the world, ham nutrition is a food staple as pugs are relatively inexpensive to keep.
As scavengers, pigs can forage independently for their food such as acorns, pea pods or garbage, according to an article published on Quatr.us by Dr. Karen Carr, Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. They also have no problem eating offal, including dead or decaying animals, or excrement.
Swine's scavenging habits made them valuable in ancient societies for sanitation purposes, according to a paper published in the November 2014 issue of the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science.
They were also found to be highly intelligent and used for sheep herding, hunting and guarding. Their meat was easily preserved through curing methods that included salting and smoking, making pork one of the most ancient dishes enjoyed in the modern age despite the disadvantages of ham.
Pigs' scavenging habits are precisely what some cultures found repulsive. People under kosher or halal dietary restrictions were forbidden from eating pork, as pigs were considered filthy animals. Also, cultures such as the Hittites required any wood or clay kitchen utensils coming in contact with a pig or its meat to be destroyed.
Read more: Is Pork Better Than Beef?
Know the Modern-Day Risks
Although modern hog-raising methods include disinfection procedures and antibiotics that can help keep the risk of food-borne illness at bay, ham nutrition's downfalls outweigh its benefits. It's essential to understand the disadvantages of ham.
Trichinellosis: This parasite is relatively rare in the U.S. today, thanks to legislation that prohibits feeding pigs with meat waste products. The trichinella parasite passes through microscopic cysts encased in muscle meats such as ham, which are then released when they come in contact with stomach acid. Smoking, curing or freezing won't necessarily kill the parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Other parasites: It might seem like raising your own pigs at home would produce the healthiest ham nutrition. However, pigs raised in non-commercial environments with access to the outdoors can get other parasites such as large roundworms and toxoplasmosis, according to the CDC.
Carcinogens: Although ancient techniques for ham-making involved salt or smoke, modern commercial ham generally includes additional preservatives, color and flavor enhancers, binders and sugars, according to the USDA's food database. Avoid processed meats, including ham, bacon, sausage and deli meat, to lower your risk of cancer, advises the Gettysburg Cancer Center.
Sodium: The American Heart Association recommends that you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and sets the ideal daily intake at 1,500 milligrams. Each 1-ounce slice of ham has 210 milligrams of sodium, according to the USDA. So if you pile 5 ounces of ham on your kaiser-roll sandwich, you've consumed two-thirds of your optimal daily sodium intake at one sitting.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer: "IARC Monographs Evaluate Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Trichinellosis FAQs"
- International Journal of Humanities and Social Science: "Pig Taboos in the Ancient near East"
- American Meat Science Association: "Classifications of Processed Meat"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Trichinellosis Outbreak Linked to Consumption of Privately Raised Raw Boar Meat — California, 2017"
- World Health Organization: "Q&A on the Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat"
- USDA FoodData Central Search Results: "Ham"
- American Heart Association: "How Much Sodium Should I Eat Per Day?"
- Michigan State University: "Disinfectant Strategies for Swine Facilities"
- Quatr.us: "History of Pigs, Pork and Bacon"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Ham"