The study, via researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health, also said processed meats increase by 19% one's likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. Both conclusions assume a daily serving of processed meat -- one to two slices of deli meats or one hot dog. The study is published in the medical journal Circulation.
Involving some 1.2 million people worldwide, it found no higher risk of heart disease or diabetes among people who ate unprocessed red meat.
The big difference between processed and unprocessed meats, per the researchers, was sodium and nitrate, with processed meats having, on average, four times the former and 50% more of the later. The take-away: avoid bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs and processed deli meats.
Janet Riley, SVP and head of public affairs, at American Meat Institute Foundation, an industry group, says the industry has for years been offering low-sodium and -nitrate processed meats. "The industry has been working to reformulate products, and there has been call for reduced sodium for a very long time," she says.
The group also has substantive issues with the study. The American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF) says the study is contrary to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The group says that since the study is epidemiological, "which by itself is not sufficient to establish cause and effect," per James A. Hodges, the group's president, it allows researchers to identify associations that may merit further study.
"Too often, epidemiological findings are reported as 'cased closed' findings, as if a researcher has discovered the definitive cause of a disease or illness," he writes. The organization says the problem with the study is that it makes the results look more dramatic than they are because the 42% increase among the processed meat-eating cohort is elaborated from an "odds ratio." The term refers to a ratio of the odds of something happening to one group to the odds of it happening to another.
"This study did not achieve the standard threshold that would generate concern," Hodges said. "At best, this hypothesis merits further study. It is certainly no reason for dietary changes."
The foundation also argues that if sodium is the issue "there are many foods higher in sodium that are more commonly consumed [than meat]. In fact, in a ham sandwich, bread and condiments contribute more sodium than the ham."
Dan Jaffe, EVP of the Association of National Advertisers, says the food industry has been proactive in reformulation efforts, with the members of the Grocery Manufacturers of American reformulating some 10,000 food items to deal with fats, sugars and salts.
"This is a multibillion-dollar effort because there is growing consumer demand," he says. "There is no group that is more active in our society today in coming to grips with obesity and other health-associated issues than the food, beverage, restaurant and advertising industry."
He says, however, that producers are trying to walk a fine line. "No matter how healthful a product is, if it tastes like sawdust it won't be useful to the public or producers."
On May 17, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, an industry initiative, held a press conference with First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America to announce a pledge to reduce 1.5 trillion calories by the end of 2015 through lower-calorie options.