Are Processed Meats Healthy? Some Associated Health Risks

One of the most common warnings in the world of nutritional research is the risk of processed meat consumption. Before diving into how the product could damage our health, we should understand what falls under the category.

The definition of processed meat has been known to vary slightly. But the World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as meat which has been transformed by salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. This can include bacon, sausages, hot dogs, beef, canned meat, meat sauces, lunch meats, and more.

Cancer is the most well-known health risk when it comes to processed meat. After examining statistical evidence from large-scale studies and findings from animal research, WHO classified processed meats as "carcinogenic to humans," which means they can cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer noted the presence of "sufficient evidence" that processed meat consumption causes colorectal cancer. Meanwhile, limited evidence also suggested consumption could cause stomach cancer.

Other types of cancers have also been associated with the meat, further complicated by inconsistent results. Most recently, a review from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health observed a strong correlation with breast cancer, estimating a 9 percent higher risk linked to processed meat.

"Previous works linked increased risk of some types of cancer to higher processed meat intake, and this recent meta-analysis suggests that processed meat consumption may also increase breast cancer risk," said lead author Dr. Maryam Farvid. "Therefore, cutting down processed meat seems beneficial for the prevention of breast cancer."

Apart from cancer, blood pressure has also been noted as a possible health risk. In a 2014 study involving more than 44,000 female participants, researchers found an association between the consumption of processed red meat and hypertension.

The link was not observed when examining the risk among those who ate unprocessed meat. So it may be plausible to suggest the high salt content used in processed meat products, for purposes such as flavoring and preservation, might be to blame.

Products like beef, sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs rank among the biggest dietary sources of saturated fat in the United States. Another preservative, known as sodium nitrate, could potentially damage blood vessels. Given these aspects, it is unsurprising when health experts suggest processed meats do not have a place in a heart-healthy diet.

Overall, the recommendation of many dietitians is to limit processed food intake in general. If one chooses to include meat as a part of their diet, they should opt for fresh meat and avoid processed types. The healthiest type of eating pattern is a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and whole grains.