Death by salami: New study finds processed meats may lead to early death

Large-scale European study reiterates link between processed meats, cancer, and heart disease. But you can still eat chicken!


JesseRad Flickr Creative Commons

JesseRad Flickr Creative Commons

  From my column at Communities @ Washington Times

WASHINGTON DC, March 11, 2013 – Say it isn’t so!   To the woe of all cold cut, bacon, bologna, and prosciutto lovers, yet another study finds that those delicious processed meats may kill you.  According to EPIC, the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, a new study published online in BMC Medicine last week, diets high in processed meats are associated with higher risk for heart disease and cancer.

EPIC’s objective was to examine “the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death.”  It followed 448,568 men and women between the ages of 35 and 69 in ten European countries for an average of 12 years.  Participants did not present predisposition to heart disease, stroke, or cancer when the study began and were recruited from the general population.  Researchers recorded every individual’s medical history as well as detailed information on physical activity, smoking, diet, and body mass index.

EPIC defined red meat as beef, pork, lamb, horse, and goat; it defined processed meat as sausage, ham, bacon, and cold cuts.  White meat included chicken, duck, turkey, and rabbit.  During the study, 26,344 participants died; 9,861 of cancer, 9,144 of other causes, 5,556 of cardiovascular diseases, 1,068 of respiratory diseases, and 715 of digestive tract.

The conclusions were nothing new: there was a positive association between high red meat consumption and “all-cause mortality,” and an even higher association between high processed meat consumption and all-cause mortality including death caused by heart disease and cancer.  However, after adjusting for error, only diets with 50 grams (1.8 ounces) or more processed meats a day had significantly higher all-cause mortality.

The study concluded that 3.3% of deaths could be prevented by a diet consisting of less than 20 grams (.7 ounce) of processed meats -the equivalent of one thin slice of bacon -per day.  The more processed meat in a person’s diet, the higher the risk; there was a 44% higher mortality rate among participants who consumed at least 160 grams (5.6 ounces) of processed meats per day than among those who consumed less than 20 grams per day.

EPIC shows that there is an association, but cannot explain exactly how processed meats, more than red meat, increase the risk for heart disease or cancer.  The answer maybe that processed meats have more fat- for example, there are salamis that are over 50% fat- which can increase the risk of stroke and heart disease. We also tend to trim the fat off red meat before or after cooking.  To add shelf life and flavor, processed meats also have added salt, smoke, and/or nitrites, which can lead to cancer and hypertension.

Besides diet, the European study attempted to account for lifestyle choices.  For example, people that do not eat a lot of processed meat also tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise more, smoke and drink less, and lead a generally healthier lifestyle than their jamón and bratwurst-eating counterparts.

The results of this study are not surprising.  Several others have linked red meat and processed meats in particular to higher risk of cancer, heart disease, and even diabetes.  One 2012 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that eating one or more serving of red meat per day raised the risk of death by cancer or heart disease by 13%.  The same study found that the risk rose to 20% in people that ate the same amount of processed meat.

Similarly, a 2012 study in the British Journal of Cancer concluded that 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of processed meat a day can raise the risk of pancreatic cancer by 19%, and 100 grams (3.5 ounces) a day can raise the risk 38%.  In case you’re wondering, 50 grams is about one sausage.  Another 2011 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet high in processed meats could affect the body’s insulin production and therefore raise the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

One surprise, however, is that EPIC did find that a small quantity of red meat may be beneficial.  Subjects who ate a moderate amount (300 to 600 grams/ 10 to 20 ounces per week) of red meat actually had a lower all-cause mortality rate than those who ate little to no red meat.  This is probably because red meat contains protein, iron, zinc, vitamins A and B, and essential fatty acids that may not be as easy to incorporate into a vegetarian diet.

Poultry and white meat are the unsung winners in this case.  The EPIC study did not find a link between poultry or other white meat consumption and early death.  So at least we still have chicken…

Read more of my column at Communities @ Washington Times