A global study led by scientists from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada has found a link between eating processed meat and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Evidence about the association between meat intake and cardiovascular disease has been inconsistent. As well, most of the evidence on meat intake and health has come from studies conducted in North America, Europe, and Japan, where the amount and types of meat consumed differ from other regions of the world.
About the study
The researchers set out to better understand the links between intakes of unprocessed red meat, poultry, and processed meat with cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack, stroke, heart failure) and mortality from dietary and health data collected from 134,297 people from 21 countries spanning five continents.
After following the participants for almost a decade, the researchers found a processed meat intake of 150 grams (5 ounces) or more per week was associated with a 46 per cent higher risk of cardiovascular disease and a 51 per cent higher risk of early death compared to those who did not eat processed meat.
Processed meat included any types of meat that had been salted, cured, or treated with preservatives and/or food additives. Ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, smoked turkey, and bologna are processed meats. So are sausages, hot dogs, bratwursts, and frankfurters. Burgers can fall into the “processed meat” category if they are preserved with chemicals.
The researchers also found eating moderate amounts of non-processed (fresh) meats did not influence the risk of cardiovascular disease (e.g., it did not increase or decrease the risk). There was also no association between poultry intake and cardiovascular disease or early death.
These findings come from The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, which was launched in 2003. It is the first multinational study that provides information on the association between unprocessed and processed meat intakes with health outcomes from low, middle and high-income countries.
Processed meat and heart health
The possible harm from processed meat may not be entirely from its saturated fat content since the amount of this fat is similar in processed and unprocessed meats. The amounts of preservatives and food additives in processed and unprocessed meats do differ markedly; these compounds may play a role.
Participants' dietary habits self-reported using food frequency questionnaires, which can be prone to error. However, given the large sample size, it is less likely the study findings would have been affected by this.
As well, the researchers did not measure participants’ diets at the start of the study; it’s possible that some people may have changed their diet over the course of the study.
Nonetheless, the researchers believe their findings "indicate that limiting the intake of processed meat should be encouraged".
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