Processed Meat Associated with Increased All-Cause Mortality

ImageA study published on March 7, 2013 in the journal BMC Medicine found that consumption of processed meat is linked to an increase in all-cause mortality. Interestingly, red meat and poultry were not associated with increased risk. The lowest rates of mortality were to individuals who consumed a low to moderate amounts of meat. 

The epidemiological study tracked the diets and health of 448,568 Europeans for about a decade. Participants were between the ages of 35 and 69 at recruitment.

Compared to the group with low processed meat consumption, the group with the highest processed meat consumption had a 44% increase in all-cause mortality. Processed meat eaters were also more likely to be current or former smokers and smoking status was associated with increased mortality risk. Non-smokers who consumed the highest amount of processed meat had a lower, but still significant 24% increase in all-cause mortality.

Besides smoking, there were other confounding factors in the study. Individuals that consumed the most processed meat also consumed the fewest fruits and vegetables. As you might expect, those individuals who consumed the highest amount of processed meat and lowest amount of fruits and vegetables had higher rates of all-cause mortality.

Neither red meat nor poultry consumption was significantly associated with cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diseases of the digestive tract, or any other cause of death.

Interestingly, individuals with no processed meat consumption had a higher mortality rate than individuals with low to moderate consumption. Authors point to the benefits of meat consumption as a possible explanation, “Meat is rich in protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins, as well as vitamin A. The bioavailability of iron and folate from meat is higher than from plant products such as grains and leafy green vegetables.” The authors speculate that nutritional deficiencies from poorly designed vegetarian diets might cause the increased mortality compared to low to moderate processed meat eaters. Furthermore, they consider the possibility that individuals consuming low to moderate amounts of processed meat may be doing in an effort to live a generally healthy lifestyle.

The authors question why processed meat, but not red meat, consumption is associated with increased mortality. One possibility they mention is the higher saturated fat and cholesterol content of processed meats. However, the other foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, like eggs, have not been linked to increased mortality. Reduction in saturated fat intake has not been shown to significantly reduce all-cause mortality.

Another possibility the authors mention is that processed meats are generally salted, cured or smoked. These processes can increase the amount of carcinogens in the meat. It’s also possible that processed meats are charred to a greater extent than non-processed meats. A recent study showed an association between the “well-doneness” of meat and cancer risk.

As always with epidemiological studies, there is the possibility that the processed meat does not actually cause the increase in mortality, but is simply correlated. While the authors attempted to correct for potential causes of increased mortality in the high processed-meat consumption group, other factors might still confound the study. Nonetheless, the sample size is very large and the results should be taken seriously. Further studies should attempt to identify whether processed meat consumption causes increased mortality. In the mean time, it might be safe to switch out the Slim Jims for steak or chicken. 

7 thoughts on “Processed Meat Associated with Increased All-Cause Mortality


  2. What is the definition of processed meats? How does my well done charcoal grilled steak compare to locally butchered bacon? Typcally, I would consider bacon processed, but maybe it’s not.

    • In this study, bacon, sausage, deli meats, beef jerky and similar types of meats were considered “processed.” A steak would not be considered processed. I can’t imagine local nitrate/nitrite free meat would have the same effect as a Slim Jim. But, this study did not sort meat into more specific categories so further studies will have to compare the specifics. Thanks for you comment and I hope this helps!

  3. I’ve been reading through your blog posts and have enjoyed them all. It’s great to find someone who can translate relevant nutrition research into the layman’s terms, and actually has the background to support those claims! I found your blog through my own research into the Nature article about TMAO/gut bacteria and it’s possible atherogenic properties (then I started reading your other posts..all great). I’m a dietitian and always trying to stay up to date on research, but with minimal research experience it’s great to find someone who can point out the limitations of a study. Keep up the good work!

    • Ryan, I’m glad you’re finding the blog useful. It’s my goal to pass on the latest nutrition studies to public in unbiased, simple terms. I like researching this stuff so I’m glad you enjoy reading!

  4. Hi Bill,

    Ditto what Ryan said. I stumbled upon your site while looking for more information on the TMAO study recently released. 23andme genetic testing has revealed my increased risk of cardiovascular disease which is not at all surprising given my family history. I’m willing to adjust my diet in anyway necessary to optimize my health, but at this point, I have no clue what that is! (Beyond the basics and common sense of course.)

    Thanks much for all your efforts in helping us decipher all this information.


    • Hi Jane,

      I’ve thought about checking about my genetic makeup with 23andme. It seems the prices are getting much more reasonable.

      Glad to hear you’re committed to adjusting your diet to combat cardiovascular disease. That willingness is the first step and something that many people unfortunately lack. I’ll do my best here to bring you the breakdown of the latest diet studies. Eating whole foods while avoiding processed foods and sugar is a good place to start. Every study I read finds that changing from the typical western diet to any other diet is beneficial. Omega-3’s seems to be a safe bet too, especially for cardiovascular health.

      Best of luck,


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