10 Tips and Delicious Ways to Wean Yourself from Red Meat

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A recent report by the World Health Organization told us what we kind of knew about red meat -- eating a lot of it increases cancer risks. But don't despair: Here are some seriously satisfying ways to cut down, flavorfully.

Put down that hot dog. Don’t touch the salami. Red meat? Cover your eyes. Look away. The World Health Organization’s October report (Sorry Carnivores: Health Research Shows Processed Meats Cause Cancer) is making it a lot harder to ignore years’ worth of health warnings about the dangers of eating too much red and processed meat. The WHO’s 22 experts from 10 countries who reviewed more than 800 studies classified processed meats as a carcinogen (causes cancer) and red meat (processed or not) as probably carcinogenic.

What to avoid

Public enemy No. 1: Cured meat. “Cured” means meat (chicken included) that’s been salted, cured, fermented or smoked to preserve it or add flavor. Even without nitrites or nitrates (chemical compounds used in food preservation), you risk raising your chance of getting colorectal cancer by 18 percent by eating the equivalent of 50 grams of processed meat a day (equal to one hotdog or four strips of bacon).

Not to be too cynical but, basically, if it’s yummy, it’s probably bad for you: bacon, sausage, salami, corned beef, pastrami, prosciutto — all bad. Even turkey bacon is suspect, according to the report. Those chicken sausages you’ve been buying because they were healthier? They fall under the WHO’s definition of risky.

What exactly is “red” meat?

“Red” meat means muscle meat from mammals, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Eating too much increases the risk of cancer, including colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

New rules and ideas:

1. Eat the yummy bad stuff, but in small amounts

The WHO study didn’t specify how much meat and cured meat is safe to eat. But other experts say it’s not necessary to eliminate it completely:

  • “Eat no more than one to two servings per month of processed meats, and no more than one to two servings per week of unprocessed meat,” Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, tells National Public Radio.
  • An occasional hamburger or hot dog is all right, The American Cancer Society says.

2. What you really want: umami

Umami is the fifth taste perceived by humans (in addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter). It is the ability to taste glutamate, an abundant amino acid present in many foods, especially in foods containing protein, particularly seafood, meat and preserved cheese. It was identified and named in 1908 in Japan by Kikunae Ikeda, of Tokyo Imperial University. Umami has the unique ability to deeply satisfy our palate.

Umami-rich foods include: miso, parmesan cheese, anchovies, beef, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, green tea, Vegemite and Marmite (tasty yeast extract pastes from, respectively, Australia and Britain) soy sauce, duck, venison, eggs, ripe tomatoes (including ketchup, tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes), mushrooms and truffles, asparagus, spinach, celery, Chinese cabbage, walnuts, oyster sauce, ketchup, wine, broths and stocks. Use small amounts of umami foods  in cooking to reduce fat and salt while boosting flavor and satisfaction.

3. Use fats — healthy ones

Fat contributes some of the deep, soulful sense of satisfaction that comes from eating meat. Use vegetable fats to hit that same note but in a healthier way.

  • Take oils 101. Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Healthy Cooking; Oils 101 lists the oils that are best for different purposes. Some cooking oils don’t stand up well to heat. Among its recommendations:
    • For high-heat cooking: almond, avocado, hazelnut, palm and refined olive oil.
    • For medium-high cooking: canola, grape seed, macadamia nut, light virgin olive and peanut.
  • Avoid trans-fats. Also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, these processed oils abound in cheaply produced baked goods, popcorn, stick margarine, shortening, fast food and many other commercial food products. (Read Trans Fat: When Cheap Means Costly.) They are seriously bad for your health.
  • Read labels. Unsure what you’re getting? Read ingredient lists.

4. Try the new mock meats

To ease the meat out of your diet, find new tastes that you like as much or better. That means experimenting. Consider experimenting with one new food each month. That’ll give you plenty of time to work on ways to slide the new products past your family. In some cases, substitutions might not be hard to sell: newer vegetarian meat replacements just might be good enough to deceive you.

Al Roker, Matt Lauer and the “Today” gang were fooled by the fake meat when they did a taste test that pitted dishes prepared with real beef and chicken with the same recipe using Beyond Meat, a processed-vegetable product. Just don’t call the stuff “fake,” CEO Ethan Brown tells NBC News’ Craig Melvin. Brown says the product is “an assembly of amino acids, fats and water that is just like what you get out of an animal.”

One Green Planet, a vegan site, reviews 11 meat replacements, including Yves Salami and Pepperoni Slices, Made by Lukas Veggie Burger Mixes, Wildwood Meatballs and Taco Crumbles and Amy’s Kitchen Veggie Loaf and Burgers.

5. Focus on creating intense flavor

“America’s Test Kitchen,” home of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, uses a research-based approach to food. For its new “Complete Vegetarian Cookbook,” testers worked and reworked each of the 700 recipes from 30 to 70 times to find how to extract the most possible flavor from vegetables.

For example, for a rich but meatless Bolognese sauce for pasta, the chefs sautéed umami-rich cremini and dried porcini mushrooms in butter with carrots and onions. They added soy sauce to the traditional tomato paste and red wine.

Anchovies give Vietnamese fish sauce the ability to mysteriously punch up flavor without a fishy taste. They are a secret ingredient in many Italian dishes, too. But for those who can’t bear anchovies, try Bragg’s liquid amino acids, a soy bean sauce that’s different from soy sauce. Found in health food stores and food co-ops, it delivers much the same result as fish sauce, the ATK chefs discovered. Use a light touch with these potent sauces — just enough to notice a mysterious, delicious difference without tasting the ingredient itself.

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