What's the Wurst for You? Processed Meats Linked to Increased Risk of Death

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Bacon seems to be everywhere. Bacon cheeseburger? Many have it for lunch. Bacon ice cream? I’ve read that that concoction has been served at various state fairs and in some ice cream parlors. And I have friends who crave this meat. And recently I saw an advertisement for chocolate-covered bacon. But a new study suggests that eating a large quantity of processed meats can significantly increase your risk of early death.

    Before we get into the study results, let’s look at what processed meats are.  “Meat was originally processed to preserve it, but since the various procedures cause so many changes in texture and flavour it is also a means of adding variety to the diet,” reports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “Processing also provides scope to mix the less desirable parts of the carcass with lean meat and in addition is a means of extending meat supplies by including other foodstuffs such as cereal in the product.”

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    There are categories of processed meats, according to the FAO. These categories include:

    • Fresh processed meat products – Hamburgers, fried sausage, kebab and chicken nuggets.
    • Cured meat pieces – Raw cured beef, raw ham, cooked beef, cooked ham, reconstituted products and bacon.
    • Raw-cooked products – Frankfurter, Mortadella, Lyoner, meat loaf.
    • Precooked-cooked products –Liver sausage, blood sausage, corned beef.
    • Raw (dry) fermented sausages – Salami, some traditional Asian products.
    • Dried meat – Meat floss, dried meat strips or flat pieces (such as beef jerky).

    Now let’s look at the study. Researchers out of Switzerland looked at data from 448,548 men and women who were between the ages of 35 and 69 at the start of the study. These participants were part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, which is coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The study’s participants lived in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These study participants did not have prevalent cancer, stroke or myocardial. The researchers also were able to get information about each participant’s smoking diet, physical activity, and body mass index, as well as whether they smoked.

    By June 2009, 26,344 deaths of study participants had been recorded. The researchers’ analysis that looked at diet found a link between high consumption of processed meat and death. In comparison, the consumption of poultry was not found to be related to a higher rate of death.

    As NPR noted, this study found that people who ate more than 20 grams a day of processed meats – which is the equivalent of one thin strip of bacon – had a higher risk of cancer, stroke and heart attack. Risk increased based on the amount of processed foods consumed. The researchers estimated that 3.3 percent of the deaths could have been prevented if the participants lowered their processed meat consumption to less than 20 grams a day.  The researchers’ assessment also pointed to significant associations between processed meat intake and cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes of death.

  • The participants who ate the processed meats regularly also had a less healthy lifestyle – eating less produce, smoking, drinking alcohol and not exercising. “The researchers tried to account for that, but say they might not have captured every nuance in diet differences between high-meat and low-meat consumers,” the NPR story stated.

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    This study reinforces previous findings. For instance, researchers in a 2012 study found that people who consumed one serving of processed meat a day saw their risk of death from cancer and heart disease jump by 20 percent. This study also found that people who consumed red meat once a day had a 13 percent higher risk of death from cancer and heart disease.

    So take this study’s findings into account when packing a picnic basket or hitting the concession stand at a baseball game. Avoid the hot dogs and the deli meats, and instead indulge in something else that’s as tasty and healthy for you. Perhaps a pulled pork and pierogi stacker or a steamed bun and Thai salad, anyone?

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Food and Agriculture Organization. (nd). Methods of processing and preservation of meat. United Nations.

    Food and Agriculture Organization. (nd). Categories of processed meat products. United Nations.

    Rohrmann, S., et al. (2013). Meat consumption and mortality - results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. BMC Medicine.

    Shute, N. (2013). Salami suicide: processed meats linked to heart disease and cancer. NPR.

Published On: March 10, 2013