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Eating Processed Meat – The Risks

Dr. Kristie Leong

Better hold the bacon with your next order of eggs over easy. A new study shows that eating processed meat such as bacon and sausage could be worse for you than previously thought. Why? Processed meats contain nitrates and salt which may raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health did a meta-analysis of almost 1,600 studies, and found that people who ate fifty grams or more of processed meat daily had a 42 percent greater risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Bad news for the hotdog lover!

It doesn’t take a lot of eating to consume fifty grams of processed meat a day. Five or six strips of bacon for breakfast would do it - even before you eat a bologna sandwich for lunch. Keep in mind that processed meats cover a lot of territory - including sausage, bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami, bologna, and packaged sandwich slices. Most Americans eat significant amounts of these foods that are not only high in fat and nitrates - but loaded with salt as well. 

On the positive side, this study didn’t show an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes from eating unprocessed meat - even red meat. This suggests that it’s not the fat that’s causing the problem, but the nitrates. Researchers also believe that the high salt content in processed meats contributes to the greater risk of heart disease and types 2 diabetes.

Why are nitrates and salt in processed meats such a problem? Nitrates are used as preservatives in meats to prevent the growth of bacteria that could cause food poisoning. They also give meat a “pink” colour that makes it more appealing to look at. Ever notice how appealing packaged bologna looks with its artificial pink colour? The nitrates added to these meats are converted to nitrites which is the chemical that actually kills the bacteria. The salt that’s added to processed meats also has anti-bacterial properties.

Some studies suggest that eating processed meats increases the risk of cancer of the digestive tract - particularly cancer of the stomach and esophagus - while others show no association. This has lead scientists to question whether nitrates are really a cancer threat at all. Nitrates are found naturally in some healthy foods such as vegetables, so it’s not clear whether nitrates are a big problem from a cancer perspective.

No one is sure why nitrates increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, as this study suggests. Processed meats have up to four times then salt content of unprocessed meats, so it’s easy to see why eating too much sausage, bacon, and luncheon meat could be a recipe for heart problems in salt sensitive people.

The Bottom Line?

Eating unprocessed meat doesn’t have the same association with heart disease and type 2 diabetes as processed meats, so if you’re going to eat it, choose lean, organic and free range, unprocessed meat instead of the salted, cured, packaged variety. Another bonus? It’ll taste better too.


Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2010. Dr. Kristie Leong is a family practice physician and medical writer. Published with permission.