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Heavy on processed meat, low-income diet poses cancer risk

Research shows that food-stamp recipients consume a lot more of the meat products now deemed carcinogenic by the WHO

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) announcement, Monday, that eating processed meats significantly raises a person’s cancer risk is bad news for low-income households, which consume a lot of such food, research shows.

“Half of low-income American adults and children consume at least two servings of processed meats each week,” said Cindy Leung, a researcher with the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco. “Processed meats are easy to prepare, widely available in low-income neighborhoods and cheaper than poultry or fish.”

Leung was the lead researcher on a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which analyzed the diets of low-income adults. Those receiving food stamps through SNAP — the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — had significantly less healthy diets, consuming 39 percent fewer whole grains, 46 percent more red meat and more processed meats than those with similar incomes who were not in the program.

While many factors shape food purchases, tight budgets and “food deserts” — neighborhoods with few outlets selling fresh produce — appear to play a much bigger role in the decisions of low-income households. This finding has led lawmakers to enhance access to fruits and vegetables by, among other things, pushing for healthier choices for meals at public schools.

Joel Berg, spokesman for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an advocacy organization, said the 2010 federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was renewed last month, has decreased public schools' reliance on processed meats and salty foods. The law set guidelines for school lunches and has prompted many schools to add vegetarian options and healthy snacks to meal choices.

"There is more focus on fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains," he said. 

The WHO study serves as a reminder of the need to continue to diversify diets and decrease children's intake of processed items in school lunches, Berg added. "It gives us yet more evident of why we need to collectively eat more healthy foods."

Research published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year revealed that while taste has the greatest influence on food shopping decisions for people at all socio-economic levels, low-income households dependent on food assistance place a higher priority than others on price, convenience and how long food keeps. The study found that combination could contribute to higher consumption of processed meats, which keep longer than other meat.

The need to buy food items that won’t spoil quickly is also evident in shopping behaviors. Food-stamp households are more likely to shop for food once a month or less, a pattern that researchers believe may be related to the monthly distribution of benefits, or the distance that poor families have to travel to reach a supermarket. In the USDA study, 14 percent of respondents using food stamps reported that it took them more than 30 minutes to travel to the store at which they did their food shopping, compared to 8 percent of higher-income shoppers. 

Households relying on food stamps reported spending $101.09 per person each month of food, compared to $148.46 for higher-income households, according to a USDA study.

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