Processed meat


Bacon, sausage, and ham are once again being singled out as key culprits driving the association between meat consumption and the world’s most common diseases. Over a mean of 12 years, high consumption of processed meat was associated with a near doubling of the risk for all-cause mortality in adults, compared with low consumption.

The risk for cancer death was 43% higher and the risk for cardiovascular death was 70% higher in people eating more than 160 g/day of processed meats than in those eating 10.0 to 19.9 g/day.

“The clinical message

[is] to limit consumption of processed meat — not every day and not in high amounts,” said lead author Sabine Rohrmann, head of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Zurich.

As the researchers point out, processed meats tend to contain more saturated fat than unprocessed meat (where the fat is often trimmed off) and more cholesterol and additives (which are part of the smoking or curing process). Some of these are believed to be carcinogenic or precursors to carcinogenic processes.

“Another factor is the salt in processed meat products, which is linked to hypertension — a CVD risk factor,” noted Dr. Rohrmann. Heme iron also links meat consumption to CVD risk, “but that’s not limited to processed meat,” she explained.

Dr. Rohrmann and colleagues point out that the high consumption of processed meat typically goes hand in hand with other unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, low levels of physical activity, and low consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Overall, estimations show that 3% of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 g of processed meat.

A number of studies have examined the link between processed meat consumption and cancer. For example, one large prospective trial linked the consumption of processed meat to an increased risk for bladder cancer. Another study found that the consumption of red and processed meats increases the risk for colorectal cancer.

“Although we did not find a statistically significant association between unprocessed red meat consumption and mortality in our studies, we would not say that there is definitely no association” between red meat consumption and CVD, “Our studies show it that it’s okay to eat a moderate amount of meat (300 to 600 g per week), as recommended by many nutrition societies,” she said. However, “a balanced vegetarian diet is okay as well,” Dr. Rohrmann explained.

The researchers note that, according to their estimates, “3.3% of deaths could be prevented if all participants had a processed meat consumption of less than 20 g/day.”


BMC Medicine. Published online March 7, 2013


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