The study, published online in BMC Medicine, calculated that 3.3 percent of the deaths in the study could have been prevented if participants ate less than 20 grams of processed meat – about equal to a piece of bacon – every day.
AICR’s expert report and its continuous updates show that both processed meat and high amounts of red meat increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
The BMC Medicine study investigated the links between red meat, processed meat and mortality. They used data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, including approximately 450,000 participants from ten European countries. When the men and women entered the study, between the ages of 35 and 69, they were free of cancer and and heart disease.
After a median follow-up time of 13 years, 26,344 of the participants had died. Participants who had consumed the highest amounts of processed meats had an increased risk of premature death compared to those who ate moderate amounts. For every 50 grams of processed meat eaten per day – about one hot dog – there was an 18 percent higher risk of dying during the course of the study. The finding took into account people’s weight, activity, alcohol intake, smoking and physical activity.
Then the researchers looked at the link between meat intake and death for all cancers and cardiovascular disease specifically. And the risk of dying from those diseases during the course of the study was higher among participants who consumed the highest amounts of processed meats.
The amount of poultry consumed was not related to mortality.
Those who ate the most red or processed meats also consumed fewer fruits and vegetables than those who ate less. They were also more likely to be current smokers. There is some chance that these factors may play a role in the findings but, as the authors note, major population studies have repeatedly found a link between premature death and high meat consumption.
For colorectal cancer risk, eating over 18 grams of red meat per week – a small burger every day – increases risk. Any amount of processed meat eaten regularly was found to increase risk, which is why AICR recommends avoiding processed meats for cancer prevention.
Processed meat mainly refers to processed red meat but may contain small amounts of white meat as well. Here’s more on what processed meat is.