There is nothing quite like waking up to the scent of bacon wafting through the house, making our mouth water and conjuring visions of scrambled eggs and a nice stack of pancakes. However, due to the findings of new research, the eggs and pancakes may have to make a go of it on their own. Researchers from the University of Zurich found that people who ate processed meat had a greater risk of early death, particularly from heart disease and cancer.
The dangers of eating processed meats such as bacon, sausage and bologna have been suggested for some years now. A study in the British Journal of Cancer showed that only 50 grams of processed meat (about the equivalent of one sausage) increased the risk of pancreatic cancer by 19%, while another study performed by researchers at Harvard University found that processed meats can interfere with your body’s production and utilization of insulin, leading to type 2 diabetes. However, these studies that showed an increased risk of mortality had compared meat eaters with vegetarians and health-conscious non-vegetarians. Therefore, it was not clearly known whether the higher rate of mortality in the meat eaters was due to eating meat, or rather due to this population having a less healthy lifestyle in general.
The EPIC Study
The new study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, was the first large-scale, long term study examining the link between meat consumption and the risk of early death. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study followed almost 450,000 European men and women aged 35 to 69 for a period averaging approximately 10 years. Their objective was to assess if there was an association between the consumption of red meat, processed meat and white meat with risk of early death. The study’s participants did not have a predisposition for heart disease, cancer or stroke before the study began.
After accounting for error, the results of the study showed a positive association between a high consumption of red meat and mortality, and an even greater risk of mortality from the consumption of processed meats (such as bacon sausage, ham and cold cuts). The researchers found that those who ate 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of processed meat per day had a significantly greater risk of mortality from any cause. Red meat was defined as being beef, lamb, pork, and goat. There was no association between early death and the consumption of white meat (chicken, turkey, duck and rabbit).
Lifestyle choices were factored into the study’s results. Previous studies had not accounted for the fact that people who eat a lot of processed meats also tend to make other unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and getting little to no exercise. The correlation between processed meats and early death remained even when these factors were considered.
However, researchers were surprised to find that participants who ate a moderate amount of red meat (10-20 ounces per week) had an even lower risk of early mortality than vegetarians or those who ate very little red meat. It is believed that the body absorbs certain nutrients present in red meat better from meat than from vegetable sources, including iron, vitamins A and B, zinc, protein and essential fatty acids.
What Makes Processed Meats So Dangerous?
The study’s authors had a couple of theories as to why processed meats were more likely to provoke early death, particularly when red meat did not show the same association. One hypothesis was that processed meats such as salami and sausage contain high amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. However, as recent studies have shown, reducing saturated fat in the diet does not lower the risk of heart disease, and in fact, those following a low-fat diet have a greater risk of death than those who eat moderate amounts of saturated fat.
The researchers’ second hypothesis seems the more likely culprit in what makes eating processed meats lead to an early death: the processing ingredients and methods themselves. Meats are processed by adding either smoke, salt or nitrites, in addition to other additives, all of which have previously been implicated in promoting the development of cancer and heart disease.
The researchers concluded by noting that "3.3% of all deaths could be prevented if processed meat consumption were below 20 g/day [0.7 ounces]," which is equivalent to about one small slice of bacon.
So while that BLT may now become a rare treat, cutting back on your intake of processed meats will likely allow you to live long enough to be able to enjoy them once in a while in your old age.