Farming News - Europe-wide study reveals unhealthy effects of eating processed meat

Europe-wide study reveals unhealthy effects of eating processed meat

07 Mar 2013


Just weeks after the horsemeat scandal left huge dents in consumer confidence and cost large meat suppliers millions in lost contracts, meat processors may be facing another PR meltdown.


Gravedigger's breakfast

Researchers from across Europe, who studied the diets and medical history of half a million people have linked consumption of processed meat products with premature death and disease. The study, published in open access journal BMC Medicine, demonstrates an association between processed meat and cardiovascular disease and cancer.


Currently, official guidelines recommend consuming no more than 70g of processed meat per day, though the report's authors believe this is much too high. They suggest recommendations should be cut by nearly 70 percent to 20 g, or the equivalent of one slice of bacon.


The study took place across ten European countries and involved the work of researchers at 23 institutions. The researchers said consuming unhealthy meat products could potentially be linked to nearly one in 30 premature deaths. They suggested that "A person's risk of premature death (increased risk of all cause mortality) increased with the amount of processed meat eaten."


However, consumption of a small amount of red meat appeared to carry benefits, which the study's authors which put down to the nutrient and vitamin content of meat. Since the study's release this week, industry leaders have been at pains to make the distinction between processed and fresh meat.


Professor Sabine Rohrmann, from the University of Zurich led the analysis of the findings. She explained, "Risks of dying earlier from cancer and cardiovascular disease increased with the amount of processed meat eaten. Overall, we estimate that 3 percent of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20g processed meat per day."


Professor Rohrmann hopes the research will be of use in informing policy decisions around public health, although her research also has implications for food security. A number of NGOs, as well as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, have called for action to address unsustainable food systems wherein almost a billion people worldwide go hungry, whilst a similar number suffer from the ill-effects of overconsumption of resource dense foods.


Researchers contributing to the BMC Medicine study said that "Only within a very large study can the consequences of eating meat and processed meat be isolated from other lifestyle choices," as variables such as lifestyle could otherwise have had a "confounding effect" on the results.


To illustrate, they added that, "Often vegetarians have healthier lifestyles than the general population, they are less likely to smoke, are less fat, and are more likely to be physically active." The researchers found that, in general, a diet high in processed meat was linked to other unhealthy choices, though they maintained that, even controlling for these variables, their link remained.