EATING PROCESSED meat can lead to early death through cardiovascular diseases and cancer, according to new research.
An analysis of almost 450,000 men and women across Europe found that there was a “moderate positive association” between eating sausages, ham, bacon and other processed meat, and mortality. The study also showed that people who ate a lot of processed meats were also more likely to smoke, be obese and have other behaviours known to damage health. But even taking these other factors into account, processed meat still damaged health, the report in the journal BMC Medicine concluded. It reads:
“Participants who consumed 160g [or more] of processed meat per day [equivalent to two sausages and a slice of bacon] had an increased risk of dying of cardiovascular diseases compared with those who consumed only moderate amounts. There was also a significant positive association between processed meat consumption and risk of dying from cancer.”
The study comes with the food sector under scrutiny following the discovery of horse DNA in some processed beef products.
The BMC Medicine study estimated that 3.3% of all deaths could be prevented if processed meat consumption were below 20g per day. It advised that “as processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption”.
Professor Sabine Rohrmann, from the University of Zurich, told the BBC: “Stopping smoking is more important than cutting meat, but I would recommend people reduce their meat intake."
The UK government recommends eating no more than 70g of processed meat. Indeed, a little bit of meat, even processed meat, had health benefits in the study. The problem is that currently 58% of men and 23% of women exceed the 70g/day red meat targets.
Some of the study’s findings support previous research. An upper limit of 300g of red meat per week (i.e. beef, pork, lamb, goat) of which very little if any should be processed meat, was set in the model based on the public health goal set by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in 2007. This recommendation was based on scientific evidence suggesting that red or processed meats are “convincing or probable causes of some cancers”.
Some studies have suggested that eating less processed meat could have health and environmental benefits. Last September, a paper published in BMJ Open concluded that reduced consumption of red and processed meat would bring “multiple benefits” to health and the environment.
Last month WWF-UK called for a move away from lower-value processed meats, though a use for lower value cuts would need to be found to ensure waste did not increase. Consideration must also be made about how “processed” the meat is, with a ready meal lasagna likely to create more issues than a burger made from fresh mince.