Is Processed Meat Unhealthy?

Jacob Queen

There is a growing consensus that overeating processed meat might be unhealthy, but there is also a lot of skepticism about these opinions and no certainty on the issue. There have been a few different studies suggesting that the consumption of products like sausage, salami, bacon, and other processed meats might result in certain health risks. These include a possible association with heart disease, diabetes, and a potential association with colon cancers. Some experts question the quality of the research methods behind these studies, partly because of the inherent difficulties in studying peoples' diets, and partly because of some of the research methods used.

Processed meat.
Processed meat.

Experts think there are a few different possible reasons why processed meat might be more dangerous for a person’s health than fresh meat. One possibility is the higher levels of sodium often found in processed meat products. Salt is often used to help preserve things, and significant amounts are often added to many processed foods. Some studies already suggest a possible connection between sodium and high blood pressure, so this might be one of the primary reasons. Another possibility is the inclusion of chemicals called nitrates, which are typically also included for the purpose of preservation.

Various types of meat, including some processed meat.
Various types of meat, including some processed meat.

Some people have responded to these studies by making an effort to create their own processed meats at home. In these cases, the people will often cut way back on the quantities of salt, or at least minimize the use of other chemicals. These people believe that taking these measures may allow them to eat salami, sausage, and other processed foods without exposing themselves to as much danger. The actual effectiveness of this approach hasn’t generally been studied very thoroughly.

Meat department at a grocery store.
Meat department at a grocery store.

There is some level of skepticism about some of the studies that are fueling worries about processed meat products. Certain skeptical scientists think the research might be showing a false connection, and this can happen in a few different ways. For example, if most people who ate large amounts of sausage also had some other lifestyle element in common, such as a lack of exercise, it might be hard to determine which one was actually causing the association. Studies usually make an effort to adjust for these possibilities, but things can occasionally sneak through anyway, especially when the results are statistically marginal.

A meat packing plant.
A meat packing plant.

Another possible problem with many food studies is the length of time it takes to do them, and the difficulty in participating. Many studies simply ask people to follow a diet for a particular length of time or give them a survey about what sorts of foods they have been eating. Since many of these studies aren’t necessarily supervised, a human element often comes into play, and people may give up diets during the study or misremember details when answering surveys.

Salami and other processed meats typically have high amounts of sodium.
Salami and other processed meats typically have high amounts of sodium.
Some processed meats, like hot dogs, are considered junk food.
Some processed meats, like hot dogs, are considered junk food.

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