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Americans Continue to Eat Processed Meat Despite Serious Health Warnings

Health + Wellness
Denis Poroy / Getty Images

By Dan Gray

Processed foods, in their many delicious forms, are an American favorite.

But new research shows that despite increasing evidence on just how unhealthy processed foods are, Americans have continued to eat the products at the same rate.


A study published in the July edition of Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at trends between 1999 and 2016.

Data on nearly 44,000 people shows that over this timespan the amount of processed meat consumed by adults in the U.S. has remained unchanged.

Consumption of healthier meat options such as fish and shellfish also stayed the same.

If there's a silver lining, it's news that Americans are eating more chicken and less red meat than they used to.

Given the acknowledged health risks of consuming processed meats, the data would seem to suggest that Americans are unaware of these dangers.

Experts interviewed by Healthline say the report isn't particularly surprising. They also offer some advice on how to eat better.

What is Processed Meat?

Processed meat isn't hard to identify.

Any meat product that's been altered in some way to add flavor or shelf life is considered processed.

The long list includes certain deli meats, along with hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and ham.

"The World Health Organization (WHO) declared processed red meat to be in the same cancer-causing category as cigarettes and plutonium, so it obviously carries some significant danger," Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health, told Healthline.

To understand what makes these meats so unhealthy, it helps to look at what's in it.

"A lot of it has to do with the actual components associated with the processing of red meat," explained Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a licensed, registered dietitian who manages wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.

One primary component of processed meat are nitrites and nitrates, components that prevent the growth of bacteria and add a salty flavor.

"A large WHO study showed strong associations between nitrates and nitrites and cancers of the stomach and colon," Kirkpatrick told Healthline. "Just last week, The BMJ found early death associated with processed red meat as well, showing that processed red meat carries much more sodium than unprocessed meat, potentially increasing the risk for hypertension, stroke, and heart attack."

Why Do We Keep Eating It?

Freeman acknowledges one big reason for the popularity of these meat products.

"It tastes really good," he said. "When meats are cured, salted, and spiced, it makes them taste good — although I would argue you can put those same spices on vegetables and make them taste good, too."

Delicious as it is, why aren't more people aware of the risks? The study's lead author believes it has to do with a lack of education.

"While factors other than health (e.g. social, cultural and economic) can influence Americans' food choices, the lack of widespread awareness of health risks associated with processed meat may have contributed to the lack of consumption change in the past 18 years," Dr. Fang Fang Zhang of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, said in a press release.

Freeman agrees, saying it's good business for major food producers to downplay the risks and continue marketing their products. In this way, processed meat is pervasive in the U.S.

"The clincher is that these products are served in healthcare institutions," he said. "You can walk into a large majority of hospital systems in this country and get bacon, eggs, salami, whatever. If you see that stuff served everywhere and see fast food commercials, it's hard to realize that there could be harm.

He also points out that while other carcinogenic products such as cigarettes have warning labels, processed meats contain no such caution.

"If you go to the store right now, there's nothing on the packaging saying this product may be associated with cancer, or with heart disease for that matter, sadly," Freeman said. "It doesn't surprise me that the study showed no change and it should be a warning to us that we really need to do a much better effort at raising awareness of the risks of consuming these products regularly."

How Much is Too Much?

For anyone who loves a hot dog at the ballpark or sausages at a summer cookout, the idea of dropping processed meat entirely may seem daunting.

A diet that includes no processed meat is ideal, but it can be enjoyed as an occasional treat.

Kirkpatrick says that eating processed meat even once a day is "way too much."

"Many experts would say never eating processed meat is acceptable, but if we look at the studyTrusted Source in The BMJ, participants were grouped by consumption and the lowest consumption — less than six times per month, or none at all — had better outcomes. I tell my patients to look at red processed meat the same way they do dessert — a few times a month as a treat."

For carnivores wary of moving to a fully plant-based diet, there are healthier meat-based options available.

"Fish is a fabulous source of protein and lots of fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may be protective to health," said Kirkpatrick. "Wild line-caught salmon, wild trout, and sardines are some of the best."

Making change on an individual level requires willpower, but it is still relatively straightforward. Changing things on a societal level constitutes a much bigger task.

Prior studies have shown the health risks of processed meats. But this most recent study, one that shows societal trends, could help move the needle in the right direction.

"Findings of this study can inform public health policy priorities for improving diet and reducing chronic disease burden in the U.S.," said Zhang. "Because stores and fast food restaurants are the main purchase locations for processed meat, future policies may prioritize these as primary sites of intervention for reducing processed meat consumption among U.S. adults."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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