Processed red meat consumption may not actually be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and type 2 diabetes, according to a new study.
Scientists from Cambridge University found that eating processed red meat did not increase any biomarkers of CVD or type 2 diabetes, despite previous evidence suggesting an association existed.
In the study red meat included beef, lamb and pork, with processed meat undergoing processes such as curing, smoking, salting, fermentation and flavour enhancement. These examples included ham and sausage.
A total of 786 Irish adults aged 18-90 years had their dietary patterns, processed red meat consumption and biomarkers of CVD and type 2 diabetes evaluated, all of whom had volunteered as part of a 2011 national food consumption survey. None of the participants had either type 2 diabetes or CVD.
Meat-containing foods were aggregated to 502 food codes and categorised into four groups: unprocessed red, processed red, unprocessed white and processed white meat. Poultry was classified as white meat.
In comparison to those who ate less processed red meat, those who ate more processed red meat had a poorer Alternate Healthy Eating Index, which indicates a healthy diet pattern. However, there were no differences in classical biomarkers of CVD and type 2 diabetes, such as cholesterol and insulin, across the dietary patterns.
The fact that those that consumed processed red meat tended to have a poorer diet overall may help to explain why less vigorously analysed observational studies have shown links between processed red meat and health conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“This analysis supports previous findings that emphasise overall dietary quality as a measure of health, rather than intakes of single foods and nutrients,” said the researchers.
“Therefore, future public health recommendations should consider focusing on the total diet, based on the conflicting evidence for the role of processed red meat in disease risk.
“Furthermore, a global definition of processed meat should also to be developed, and modification of ingredients, similar to salt reductions, may be an effective public health strategy to improve the quality of processed red meat.”
The study has been published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

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