Processed Meats: What’s Inside May Kill You

Fascinating- and important- new research from the Harvard School of Public Health questions the common assumption that eating red meat increases the risk for heart attacks.

The study actually analyzed the specific types of meat being eaten instead of lumping them all together. The researchers then looked at the relationship of specific types of meat and heart disease risk. When the data got broken down this way, some interesting findings emerged.

Number one: The increase in heart disease risk is associated with processed varieties of meat like bacon, sausage, cold cuts and hot dogs.

Number two: When you take those processed meats out of the equation, the connection between meat eating and heart disease disappears.

Let me explain.

There are disturbing studies showing a relationship of meat eating to various diseases. The problem I’ve always had with those studies is that they never distinguish among the types of meat eaten. For example, a person eating wild game with a rich vegetable stew is lumped together with the guy who eats seven ballpark franks a day and never met a vegetable he could manage to get down.

Why does it matter?

Well for one thing a very strong case can be made that the risk for cancer and heart disease that seems to be associated with meat eating is not so much due to meat per se as it is to the chemicals, hormones, and other really bad stuff that factory farmed meat is teeming with. Grass-fed meat, on the other hand, has none of that stuff. It also has a higher content of omega-3 fats and a lower content of pro-inflammatory omega-6’s.

For another thing, those who are motivated enough to seek out and purchase grass-fed meat also tend to eat their vegetables and eat healthy in other ways.

The Harvard researchers poled the data from 20 different studies around the world and found that when they broke down meat into categories instead of just looking at “meat eating” in general, there was a whopping 42% increase in the risk of heart disease for every two ounces of processed meat consumed daily. Those same two ounces a day increased the risk of diabetes by 19%.

But those consuming a four-ounce daily serving of red meat from beef, hamburger, pork, lamb or game had no statistical increase in their risk for either heart disease or diabetes.

“The conventional wisdom is that red meats have higher saturated fat and cholesterol levels”, said Renata Micha, a research fellow in the Harvard school of Public Health. “But when you try to separate processed from unprocessed meats, you get an entirely different picture”.

Saturated fat- which I’ve long argued is unfairly blamed for everything- is just about the same in both processed and unprocessed meats, and cholesterol- which is even more innocent—is actually higher in red meat.

But the sodium in a two-ounce serving of processed meat is almost four times the amount found in ordinary steak or hamburger. And that’s not even getting into nitrates, which are also higher in processed meats and which have been shown in some research to negatively affect the health of blood vessels.

Maybe saturated fat isn’t the bad guy after all.

Even though the researchers only made two categories– “processed” (bacon, sausage, deli meats) and “unprocessed” (plain old steaks and chops, etc) I think you would get even more spectacular results if you broke up the “unprocessed” category into “factory-farmed” and “grass-fed, pasture-raised”.

My guess would be that not only would you see absolutely no negatives when it comes to heart disease and diabetes, but you might also see some positives—perhaps from the higher omega-3 content, the lower omega-6 content, and the absence of chemicals in grass-fed, pasture-raised meat.