Large study adds new evidence that processed meat can kill you

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
processed meat, red meat, cardiovascular disease, cancer, death

Once again researchers have pointed out the health hazards of consumption of processed meats such as ham, bacon, and sausage. A new, large study comprised of more than 400,000 men and women has amassed additional evidence that you should minimize intake of such foods and replace them with healthier alternatives. An international team of researchers published their findings online on March 7 in the journal BMC Medicine.

The researchers note that meat consumption has been on the rise since World War II. In the past, this increase has been confined to the Western world (i.e., North America, North and Western Europe, and Australia/New Zealand); however, meat consumption is now increasing in other nations such as China due to economic development. The authors note that from a physiological perspective, a diet rich in meat has both potential nutritional benefits but also potential adverse effects. Meat is rich in protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins, as well as Vitamin A. They note that the amount of iron and folate in meat is higher than that from plant products such as grains and leafy green vegetables. However, the downside is the high content of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids, both of which have been shown to be positively associated with plasma low density lipoprotein (LDL; “bad cholesterol”) concentrations and the risk of coronary heart disease. The researchers explain that iron is essential for prevention of anemia, a high intake, especially of heme iron, is related to the endogenous (within the body) formation of N-nitroso compounds in the gastrointestinal tract; thus, consumption may be a risk factor for some cancers, such as colon cancer.

The authors noted that some studies conducted in the United States have reported a moderate association between red and processed meat consumption and mortality; in addition, these studies supported the results of previous studies among vegetarians. The aim of their study was to examine the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).


The study group comprised 448,568 men and women without any evidence of cancer, stroke, or myocardial infarction (heart attack), and with complete information on diet, smoking, physical activity and body mass index (BMI), who were between 35 and 69 years old at baseline. By a method known as Cox proportional hazards regression, the researchers examined the association of meat consumption with all-cause (any cause) and cause-specific (single cause, i.e., cardiovascular disease) mortality.

The investigators found that as of June 2009, 26,344 deaths occurred. After multivariate adjustment (adjustment for a number of factors such as age, sex, and smoking), a high consumption of red meat was related to higher all-cause mortality (1.14-fold increased risk), and the association was stronger for processed meat (1.44-fold increased risk). After correction for measurement error, higher all-cause mortality remained significant only for processed meat. The researchers estimated that 3.3% of deaths could be prevented if all participants had a processed meat consumption of less than 20 grams/day. They found significant associations with processed meat intake and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and 'other causes of death'. The consumption of poultry was not related to all-cause mortality.

The authors concluded that their study supports a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer.

Take home message:
This large study is one of many reporting the impact on one’s health from the consumption of red and processed meats. Thus, it would be prudent to limit their consumption. Leaner and healthier beef products should be selected. For example, NBO3 Technologies LLC (Manhattan, Kansas) is now offering its GreatO Premium Ground Beef, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. The authors of the present study found no association with increased mortality; however, it is best to pay a higher price and purchase organic products that do not contain antibiotics or hormones such as estrogen. Replacing preserved or red meats with fresh vegetables or healthy vegetable products such as soy also has health benefits.

Reference: BMC Medicine