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By the end of this year, we’ll have chewed our way through around 5.5 million pigs, often in the form of ham and bacon – and you have to wonder why.

It’s not just the ugliness of animal slaughter as revealed by the ABC’s recent 730 story on the gassing of pigs, but because ham and bacon are processed meats: the kind of meat most strongly linked to bowel cancer.

Bacon is bad for you, unfortunately.Credit: Bottaci

Just 50g of processed meat daily (around two slices of bacon or ham) can boost the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent, utmb alternative medicine according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The World Health Organisation classifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning there’s convincing evidence that it causes cancer.

The problem is the nitrite and nitrate preservatives used to preserve it – when they reach the gut, they form another chemical called nitrosomine that can damage the cells lining the bowel. And while you can buy processed meats free from nitrite and nitrate, they’re not ideal either.

“The IARC also says that cooking meat and processed meat – particularly high-temperature pan frying and barbecuing, or smoking – can cause the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are also considered carcinogenic,” explains Clare Hughes, chair of the Cancer Council nutrition, alcohol and physical activity committee. “The Cancer Council recommends people limit their intake of processed meats, regardless of whether they’re made with nitrite or nitrate preservatives or not.”

So what can you eat instead that replicates the savoury taste of bacon and ham? Mushrooms’ rich flavour makes them an easy swap for bacon or ham in mixed dishes like pizza or quiche, or sautéed in olive oil to go with eggs for breakfast – a dash of coconut aminos or tamari adds extra depth. Plant-based dips like beetroot hummus or babaganoush have enough flavour to replace ham in a sandwich, and adding salad with sun-dried tomatoes amps up the taste.

“You can also bacon-ise a lot of plant foods with the right marinade, you just need the right condiments to create that salty umami flavour,” says Melbourne-based chef Zacchary Bird, author of The Vegan Butcher, who creates ‘bacon’ from eggplant slices, oyster mushroom stems, and even rice paper. The secret is using a marinade made with ingredients like soy sauce, nutritional yeast, liquid smoke and maple syrup, as this guide on his website shows.

“Tempeh bacon is also great served alongside baked beans and, hash browns – just marinate thinly sliced tempeh in soy sauce, smoked paprika and maple syrup and fry until crispy,” adds Louise Pfeiffer, vice president of the Animal Justice Party.

Any leftovers can replace ham in sandwiches, she says, but she also uses plant-based ham or bacon products available in supermarkets.

Hidden in a sandwich, some plant-based hams would fool a hardened ham eater. Like fake bacon, they’re a convenient swap but some can be high in salt and highly processed – so look for products containing the least sodium and with the kind of ingredients you’d find in a kitchen, not a lab.

Still, these products are hitting the spot with some meat eaters – which could be good news for animals, pigs included.

“Plant-based protein sales over the last year reflect that the majority of sales – 88 per cent – are skewed towards mainstream customers who also bought meat, rather than dedicated vegetarians and vegans,” a spokesperson for Woolworths says.

But for a healthier plant-based sandwich or breakfast, we’re better off with whole foods like hummus, tofu, mushrooms or tempeh rather than too many processed fake hams and bacon. That way we’ll do our own health – and pigs – a favour.

After all, as Brian Sherman, founder of the Australian animal advocacy, Voiceless, once said, it’s an accident of history that pigs ended up on top of the dinner table, while dogs ended up under it. We wouldn’t dream of eating a cheese and spaniel sandwich, or a hot beagle and egg roll – isn’t it time we gave pigs a chance too?

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