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Is it time to ditch your child’s lunchbox ham sandwich?

On packed lunch days, as I make my kids their sandwiches for school, I feel torn.

On the one hand, my eldest prefers a tasty slice of ham or salami as a filling. But on the other, controversy still rages over the link between cancer and bacon, ham, chorizo and sausages.

So like me, you could be feeling confused – and pretty guilty. Especially if you have a child who won’t eat those easy meat-free alternative sandwich fillings of Cheddar, cream cheese or hummus.


Child removing wholemeal sandwich out of lunchbox

The science

For years, scientists have been finding that eating a lot of red meat, and particularly processed meat, increases your risk of developing bowel cancer. Processed meat, like ham, has also been linked to prostate, stomach, oesophagus, bladder and lung cancers.

The controversy was ramped up again when researchers found that eating more than 20g of processed meat a day increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. That amount of processed meat is just two slices of wafer thin ham, or a matchbook-sized portion of sausage.

Then there’s the World Cancer Research Fund, which recommends shunning processed meat completely, saying that just one sausage – or two slices of bacon – a day increases your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. They also say that the more processed meat you consume, the bigger the cancer risk.  

What’s the damage?

There are several reasons why processed meat is upsetting our bodies:

  1. Cooking meat at high temperatures, like frying or grilling creates carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines. Over time, these can damage the DNA, according to a study in the journal Cancer Research. (Baking or poaching are two safer ways to cook, say the American Cancer Society.)
  2. Red and processed meats contain haem, a pigment which gives the meat its pink or red colour. Cancer Research UK says that haem triggers the bacteria in our digestive systems to make N-nitroso compounds, and that these damage our DNA. We produce more N-nitroso compounds when we eat processed meat than we do when eating red meat. Another issue is that haem damages the cells in our bowels by causing them to divide much more than normal.
  3. Preserving meat, for example, by salting, curing, smoking or adding chemical preservatives, adds nitrates and nitrites. These react with protein in the meat to make N-Nitroso compounds, which damage the cells in the body.

Next steps

If your kids don’t eat ham every day, you may not need to worry. But if your children are ham addicts, you may want to think again, says dietitian Jennifer Low, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. She suggests following the World Cancer Research Fund recommendations and banning processed meat in your home entirely if possible.

5 top tips to turfing the ham out of their lunchboxes:

You know the science, but what will your kids think? Try these tips to transform their sandwiches:

1. Take baby steps

‘If your child won’t eat anything but ham sandwiches, I suggest changing gradually,’ says Jennifer. ‘Perhaps add cheese or hummus to the ham sandwich and then, as your child gets used to the taste, gradually remove the ham.’

2. Buy less ham

This sounds simple but it’s amazing how innovative you – or your child – will have to be once you’ve ‘accidentally’ run out.

3. Half and half

Fill half the wrap or sandwich with ham and try an alternative for the other half – that way your child tries something new without having to commit to the whole shebang.

4. Child talk

Ask your child to help choose a new sandwich filling when you’re next in the supermarket.

5. Keep the outside interesting

‘Try serving up different kinds of breads to prevent boredom,’ says Jennifer. ‘For example, you can use pittas, bagels, rolls, white bread or granary bread.’