Thursday, 7 March 2013

Bacon or death?

Processed meat linked to early death! 

Processed meat is a killer! 

Scary sausages? Suicide salami? Death by bacon? I can imagine worse ways to go. But then, I'm very easily seduced by a bacon sandwich. I jest, of course.

It's universally accepted that what we eat has an effect on our health, and the results of a study appearing in the news today have highlighted the risks associated with eating processed meat, which includes bacon, sausages, ham and other such meaty delights.

The research has spawned headlines proclaiming the dangers of eating processed meat, with findings indicating that people who consume more than 20g of processed meat per day have an increased risk of premature death from all causes, with particular risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The study, involving 448,568 people from ten European countries, forms part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (the EPIC study). The results published today look specifically at meat consumption and a preview draft can be found here.

What the results say:

  • Eating 160g or more of processed meat each day increases your risk by 44% of dying, from any cause, when compared to people who eat 20g or less. 
  • The risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer are raised more than other causes of death. 
  • People who eat a lot of processed meats are also more likely to have other less healthy behaviours - smoking, high alcohol consumption, and low fruit and vegetable intake.
  • Even when these other behaviours are taken into account, processed meat consumption was shown to increase risk of premature death. 

So how much meat are we talking about?

20g is a small portion - one small rasher of bacon, 1/5 of a McDonald's burger, two wafer thin slices of ham or a snack-sized Pepperami.

160g is a more robust portion - 2-3 sausages, half a can of Spam, four frankfurters, etc.

If you're a dedicated carnivore, it's easy for the total consumption of processed meats to add up over the course of a day or week. Bacon sandwiches for breakfast, ham rolls for lunch, sausage and mash for dinner - you can easily go over and above the 160g amount associated with significantly increased risk.

The current recommendation from the Department of Health is that we eat no more than 70g of red or processed meat per day. It is worth differentiating between the two of these, as they are most definitely not same thing.

What exactly is processed meat?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's meat that has been subjected to some form of processing. This includes salting, curing, smoking and other process that preserve the meat, typically involving the addition of chemical preservatives.

Processed meat tends to be higher in fat than a cut of fresh meat, and also has additives such as nitrites, nitrates and salt, which in themselves can have a detrimental effect on health.

Mincing meat is not, in itself, sufficient for it to be considered as processed. Some additional preserving process is required, for example, adding preservatives, salt, etc.

And red meat?

The term red meat is used to describe meat that is (wait for it!) red when raw. Some people quibble over pork, but it is indeed classified as a red meat.

Red meat is nutritious. It's an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc and iron and vitamin B12. Opt for lean cuts and low-fat cooking methods and there's no reason not to include it in your diet.

This study also looked at the consumption of white meat, which includes poultry and rabbit. No effect on mortality was identified.

Red meat may be processed, but not all processed meat is red. It is worth noting that any meat can be processed: a chicken nugget, for example, is most definitely a processed (white) meat.

The processed meat in this study however, was primarily processed red meat. Small amounts of processed white meats were included, but most consisted of processed beef, pork and lamb (and to a lesser extent, goat and horse. Probably more horse than was first thought...).

So what can we learn from this study?

Red and processed meats have, for some years, been associated with an increased risk of cancer development, particularly bowel cancer. The findings associating processed meat with cardiovascular disease is new.

How significant is this risk? Well the authors have stated that 3% of deaths within the participants of the study could have been prevented - that's 869 preventable deaths. If you extend that percentage to deaths in the UK (from all causes), then there's the potential for in the region of 15,000 deaths being prevented each year.

Processed meats tend to offer no nutritional benefit over meats in their natural form. Choose lean cuts of fresh/frozen red or white meat (check for additives and veer toward white meat more than red) and eat it in moderation, and you should have nothing to worry about.

If you do want to eat processed meats, do so. But accept that there is some risk involved, as there is with many things in life. A bacon sandwich is certainly enjoyable, but is it really worth a slightly hastened death?

Hence the (ever so slightly hyperbolic) title of this post - bacon or death? The choice is yours.

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