Processing Magazine

Processed meat linked to higher risk of premature death

March 12, 2013

A new large-scale research study by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) suggests that excessive consumption of processed meat is linked to increased risk of premature death, including from causes such as heart disease and cancer.

In fact, the research found that the risk of premature death from any cause was higher among people who regularly ate large amounts of bacon, ham, sausages and other types of processed meat. According to EPIC, high consumption of processed meat equals at least 160 grams per day. The study concluded that high processed meat consumers were at 44 percent higher risk of premature death. The risk of dying from heart disease was 72 percent higher, whereas the risk of developing deadly cancer increased by 11 percent, the research published in the journal BMC Medicine revealed. Overall, the study found that about 3.3 percent of all deaths could have been prevented.

In addition, EPIC noted that a diet consisting of significant proportions of processed meat was often linked with other unhealthy lifestyle choices, as high processed meat consumers were more likely to smoke, regardless of their gender, and men who ate a lot of processed meat were also more likely to have high levels of alcohol consumption.

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The study involved almost 500,000 people from 10 countries. Their eating habits were tracked over a period of nearly 13 years and medical records of their diseases and conditions were also kept. Researchers found that the risk of premature death from any cause increased in line with the amount of processed meat consumed.

The report has been criticized by nutritionists. Dr. Carrie Ruxton, who is a dietitian sitting on the Meat Advisory Panel, stated that the report had a major flaw. While it was not unreasonable to assume that there could be a link between processed meat consumption and other unhealthy lifestyle choices, the research did not isolate the most hazardous of these factors. Researchers could not state with certainty if the risk of premature death could be attributed to processed meat or the combination of all risk factors.

A similar point of view was expressed by Zoe Harcombe, author of the book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?, who argued that the research did not differentiate between the processed meat itself and the carbohydrates often associated with processed meat, such as flours and sugars in the pies, pastries and slices of bread which the processed meat was put in. She also claimed that the notion of preventable death was "laughable" because death could not be prevented. However, she welcomed the fact that the report separated processed meat from meat in general, rather than simply concluding that all meat is bad for your health.