While it’s nowhere near as ubiquitous as the Thanksgiving turkey, for many American families, the Christmas ham is an essential part of a festive spread. Unfortunately, the salted, cured meat, while being lean and a good source of protein, comes with a multitude of health risks, and is often the product of very unsustainable and inhumane hog-farming operations. In the interest of comfort and joy, you may want to consider serving an alternative dish to your friends and family.
One of the obvious health troubles with the vast majority of ham sold in the United States is the high amount of sodium that’s present in the meat, even in “low sodium” varieties. Pork in and of itself isn’t salty, but most hams, because it’s cured and preserved in brine, which is composed most often of sodium nitrites and, occasionally, added “smoke flavoring.”
This process is mostly to kill Trichinella spiralis, a parasite found in hogs and causes Trichinosis–which is good, except that it also means that the average serving of ham (“a serving”, by the way, is relatively small and probably much more conservative than what most people actually eat) contains about half the daily recommended sodium for most healthy people, and as much sodium as is recommended for those over the age of 51, or who have high blood pressure. Too much sodium can lead to hypertension and kidney disease.
Aside from the sodium concerns, ham may pose greater health risks. Multiple studies over the last 10 years have linked the consumption of pork products, including ham, to increased rates of cancer–something that concerns the pork industry, and has spurred campaigns such as “The Other White Meat” in an attempt to portray swine products in a more positive light. Additionally, hams that have been improperly or inadequately cured may still present the risk of bacterial or viral infection, as well as other food-borne illness found in meats.
Even if ham didn’t present a single health risk, it would still be a concern to those who wish to live a more eco-friendly life. Industrial an intensive pig farming, which is illegal in the UK and in several (but not many) states in the US, is a pollution-creating, inhumane method of raising hogs for ham and other pork products. These large-scale farms can lead to antibiotic resistance (much like with turkey farming), as well as huge environmental concerns for those living near hog farms. Air, water, and soil quality are all diminished by high levels of ammonia. And on top of all that, the pigs are treated deplorably–even on the farms of some of the most beloved ham producers.
Christmas ham may sounds like a mouthwatering meal choice, but it may be more damaging than many diners realize. Choosing a locally-grown meat with a smaller carbon footprint (free-range chickens, for example) can make your meal more nutritious and conscientiousness. You can choose to go meat-free, and substitute lots of of beans, wheat gluten (like seitan), or even some soy. Or, if you’re hell-bent on ham, seek out sustainable, small operations, and inquire about lower sodium curing processes. You’ll still get to enjoy your favorite holiday treat–but without the un-festive health risks and environmental impact.
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