COMMENT:

Did you have your first barbecue of the season last weekend? Labour Weekend is usually when we uncover the barbie (possibly still grimy from the final barbecue of last summer), give it a clean and crank it up ready to receive some steak or sausages.

Kiwis eat a lot of sausages — the recent NZ Sausage Awards attracted 490 entries from butchers all over the country. The sausage has been a favourite meat for generations.

But in these times of concern over meat consumption, how healthy are our bangers? What should we be looking out for when choosing something for our summer get-togethers?

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As with all red meat, it probably pays to be a bit discerning when it comes to sausages. We're better off eating less but better; choosing quality over quantity. And the sausages available to us vary widely in terms of quality and health.

Sausages can really vary in the amount of meat they contain. When Healthy Food Guide surveyed sausages last year, the brands looked at contained from 60 to 90 per cent meat.

This, of course, means the protein content varies, too — more meat equals more protein. Less meat typically means more filler, which could be wheat, rice or other flours in various amounts.

These fillers can contain gluten, but it's not too hard these days to find gluten-free sausages, if that's what you're looking for.

There's a bit of confusion out there about nitrites and nitrates in sausages. These are chemicals found naturally in some foods or added to others as a preservative. There is concern that foods containing nitrite, particularly cured meats, may be linked to cancers.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified processed meat as a probable carcinogen, and recommends we eat very little, if any. In their recommendations they tend to talk about sausages, along with cured and smoked meats and bacon as examples of these processed meats.

However, all processed meats are not equal; I think this might be a case where a bit of detail is lost in translation.

The sausages we throw on the barbie here in New Zealand are technically processed meats. But unless they are smoked or cured — such as salami or smoked frankfurters, etc — they are unlikely to contain nitrites or nitrates.

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Interestingly, MPI says Kiwis get most of our nitrates and a lot of nitrites from vegetables, where they occur naturally. The benefits of eating vegetables far outweigh this risk, though. No one is going to tell you to eat fewer veges.

Sausages do often contain sulphites as preservatives (numbers 220-228) which can cause problems for some people. And some have MSG (621).

A bigger danger in sausages, though, is probably salt, since many of us still get too much of this. Sausage makers have been doing a good job in recent years of bringing the salt content of their bangers down, but it still pays to check. Look for a sausage with 650mg sodium or less per 100g for a healthier barbie.

• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide www.healthyfood.co.nz