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Processed meat: the real villain?

  • Sabine Rohrmann (a1) and Jakob Linseisen (a2)

Meat is a food rich in protein, minerals such as iron and zinc as well as a variety of vitamins, in particular B vitamins. However, the content of cholesterol and saturated fat is higher than in some other food groups. Processed meat is defined as products usually made of red meat that are cured, salted or smoked (e.g. ham or bacon) in order to improve the durability of the food and/or to improve colour and taste, and often contain a high amount of minced fatty tissue (e.g. sausages). Hence, high consumption of processed foods may lead to an increased intake of saturated fats, cholesterol, salt, nitrite, haem iron, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and, depending upon the chosen food preparation method, also heterocyclic amines. Several large cohort studies have shown that a high consumption of processed (red) meat is related to increased overall and cause-specific mortality. A meta-analysis of nine cohort studies observed a higher mortality among high consumers of processed red meat (relative risk (RR) = 1·23; 95 % CI 1·17, 1·28, top v. bottom consumption category), but not unprocessed red meat (RR = 1·10; 95 % CI 0·98, 1·22). Similar associations were reported in a second meta-analysis. All studies argue that plausible mechanisms are available linking processed meat consumption and risk of chronic diseases such as CVD, diabetes mellitus or some types of cancer. However, the results of meta-analyses do show some degree of heterogeneity between studies, and it has to be taken into account that individuals with low red or processed meat consumption tend to have a healthier lifestyle in general. Hence, substantial residual confounding cannot be excluded. Information from other types of studies in man is needed to support a causal role of processed meat in the aetiology of chronic diseases, e.g. studies using the Mendelian randomisation approach.

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* Corresponding author: S. Rohrmann, email
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