Processed Meats, but Not Red Meat, Linked With CV Deaths

Shelley Wood

March 07, 2013

LONDON — Bacon, sausage, and ham--some of the most beloved foodstuffs on the planet--are once again being singled out as key culprits driving the association between meat consumption and the world's most common diseases [1].

In one of the largest studies to address this question, high consumption of processed meat by middle-aged adults was associated with a near doubling of the risk of all-cause mortality, compared with low consumption, over a mean of 12 years. Risk of cardiovascular death, after rigorous modeling, was increased by more than 70% among people eating more than 160 g/day, as compared with those eating 10 to 19.9 g/day. Risk of cancer deaths was also 43% higher among the highest consumers of processed meats.

"The clinical message, in our opinion, is that it's okay to eat some meat, but to limit consumption of processed meat: not every day and not in high amounts," lead author Dr Sabine Rohrmann (University of Zurich, Switzerland) told heartwire in an email.

EPIC Data

The new data come from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, involving 10 countries and almost half a million men and women. It was published online today in BMC Medicine.

Of note, say the authors, while a signal of increased mortality was seen among the highest consumers of red meat in general, the risk for red meat was much lower that that of processed meats and lost statistical significance after correction for measurement error. With the same adjustments and corrections, high processed-meat consumption was associated with an 18% greater risk of all-cause mortality.

As the authors point out, processed meats tend to contain more saturated fat than unprocessed meat (where the fat is often trimmed off), as well as more cholesterol and additives, often as part of the smoking or curing process. Some of these are believed to be carcinogenic or precursors to carcinogenic processes. "Another factor is the content of salt in processed-meat products, which is linked to hypertension, which is a CVD risk factor," Rohrmann told heartwire . "Heme iron is another mechanism, which links meat consumption to CVD risk, but that's not limited to processed meat."

Rohrmann and colleagues also point out that high consumption of processed meat typically went hand in hand with other unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, low physical-activity levels, and low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

"Overall, we estimate that 3% of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 g of processed meat per day," Rohrmann commented in a press statement.

What About Red Meat?

Other studies have singled out processed meats as particularly hazardous to health. US analyses of meat consumption and mortality, drawing on data from two large, long-running US studies, have also documented the link between meat consumption and CVD and cancer deaths, but the stronger association seen with processed meats in this European cohort is somewhat at odds with the American data.

"Although we did not find a statistically significant association between unprocessed red-meat consumption and mortality in our studies, the two US studies did," Rohrmann said. "Therefore, we would not say that there is definitely no association [between red-meat consumption and CVD]. What I think our studies show is that it's okay to eat a moderate amount of meat--300 to 600 g per week as recommended by many nutrition societies--for intake of some important minerals and vitamins; however, a balanced vegetarian diet is, of course, okay as well."

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