Pig out: Experts say ham sandwich school lunch as harmful as smoking

A lunchbox kerfuffle may have turned the humble ham sandwich into a beacon of personal choice and symbol against “woke” over-reaction, but leading health experts say the school lunch staple is just as bad for your health as smoking.

Experts say a ham sandwich for children is as harmful as a cigarette. (File image)

Experts say a ham sandwich for children is as harmful as a cigarette. (File image)

University of Southern Queensland public health expert Dr Aletha Ward said a Cancer Council warning to parents to ditch the school lunch favourite was on the money, with processed meats such as ham linked to obesity and bowel cancer.

“There’s two parts to this and one is that processed foods aren’t great for obesity,” Ward said.

“But also the Cancer Council has a very valid point that ham and processed meats are a carcinogen. Most of us wouldn’t send a cigarette to school in our kids lunchboxes, but we are sending ham.

“If we’re having things like processed meats regularly, that definitely increases the risk of bowel cancer.”

In a note inside New South Wales public school newsletters last week, the Cancer Council asked parents to avoid giving children the processed meat.

The Cancer Council’s ‘Nutrition Snippit’ called on parents and guardians to “ditch the ham sandwich” and seek healthy alternatives like cheese, hummus, BBQ chicken, or leftover home-cooked meat.

However, the note has sparked a backlash against “woke interference” and parents being told what to feed children that has drawn the backing of meat producers, politicians and celebrities.

In NSW, Premier Dominic Perrottet said the Cancer Council should “sit this one out”, while his Transport Minister David Elliott called the note yet another example of “people who just want to get into our lives, influence our opinions and tell us what we’re doing wrong.”

On the Today show, host Karl Stefanovic said the “woke message” was an overreaction.
However, Ward said the message to limit consumption of processed meats had the backing the World Health Organisation.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer and World Health organisation classify processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos.

“The World Health Organisation does class processed meats such as ham as a Class 1 carcinogen, that’s just like smoking and most of wouldn’t smoke tobacco,” Ward said.

“We’ve got one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and that’s what those processed meats are linked to.”
Latest figures show one in 15 people in Australia develop bowel cancer, or around 293 people a week. Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the country after lung cancer.

On the obesity front, figures show 24 per cent of Australian children are overweight and a further seven per cent are obese.

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Ward said the debate around excluding ham from school lunchboxes was bordering on the ridiculous.

“We don’t have protein deficiency in Australia. We do have fibre deficiency though, so what we call for is higher takes of fruit and veg and a decrease in processed foods such as processed meats,” she said.

For years the Cancer Council has prodded parents to limit processed meats in school lunchboxes.

In an earlier note to parents in 2019, the Cancer Council also urged parents and carers to swap ham out of the lunchbox.

“To reduce your cancer risk, make processed meat an occasional food only and not a regular choice,” it said.

“One way to help your family limit their intake of processed meats is to keep them out of the lunch box.”

The Cancer Council also established a website called the Heathy Lunch Box for parents and carers to save time and money and provide “tips for adding fruit and vegetables to your diet can set yourself and your family on a path of lifelong healthy eating, to reduce your cancer risk.”



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