Biggest consumers of food such as ham, bacon and sausages are 44% more likely to die prematurely, according to research
People who eat a lot of processed meat such as ham, bacon, sausages and burgers run a greater risk of premature death and developing conditions such as cancer and heart disease, research shows.
The study, which included data from 448,568 people in 10 European countries, including the UK, found that the biggest consumers of processed meat were 44% more likely to die prematurely from any cause than those who ate little of it. High levels of consumption increased the risk of death from heart disease by 72% and cancer by 11%.
If everyone ate no more than 20g a day of processed meat – about one rasher of bacon, chipolata sausage or thin slice of ham – then 3% of all premature deaths could be avoided, according to an estimate by the authors, led by Professor Sabine Rohrmann from the University of Zurich. Their results are published in the journal BMC Medicine.
But a small amount of red meat also seems to benefit health, because it contains important nutrients and minerals, they add. Risks rise in line with the level of consumption, the researchers found. The results are in line with previous studies. Dr Rachel Thompson, deputy head of science at the World Cancer Research Fund, said the research bore out its own findings in 2007 – disputed by the meat industry at the time – about the health risks of processed meat.
It has found that consuming bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami and some sausages heightened the risk of bowel cancer. The charity estimates that 4,100 fewer Britons a year would be diagnosed with the disease if everyone ate no more than 10g of processed meat a day, though advises avoiding it altogether.
Dr Carrie Ruxton, a nutritionist who sits on the meat industry-funded Meat Advisory Panel, said the study's findings were not robust enough to justify changing public health advice. The fact those who consumed the largest amounts of processed meat also displayed other unhealthy habits meant it was hard to confidently ascribe risk of death to meat eating alone, she said.
"The occasional bacon butty isn't going to do you much harm. People shouldn't avoid bacon or salami because they think it's going to kill them, because it won't. We can't say that from this study. But we do know that processed meat has a higher salt and fat content, so having bacon or salami in moderation, and switching to lean red meat products, is a good idea," Ruxton added. Tracy Parker, a heart health dietitian with the British Heart Foundation, said people who ate a lot of processed meat should try to eat a more varied diet, such as chicken, fish, beans or lentils.
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