Processed meats to avoid and healthy alternatives

full english breakfastRecent research* suggests that eating too much processed meat can have a significant impact on life expectancy.

If you're partial to a bacon butty, or your children insist on ham sandwiches in their lunchbox every single day, it's the sort of story that fuels fears about food choices.

So what's the problem? Eating too much processed meat - such as sausages, bacon and ham - looks as though it reduces life expectancy.

Says who? Researchers at the University of Zurich, who conducted a study of half a million Europeans

Reduces life expectancy how exactly? People with diets that are high in processed meats are more likely to die earlier than expected due to cardiovascular disease and cancer (particularly bowel). The link between heart disease and processed meat is a new finding of this latest research.

And the facts are? People in the study who ate more than 160g of processed meat a day - the equivalent of two sausages and a slice of bacon - were 44% more likely to die after 12.7 years than those eating about 20g.

Non-meat packed lunch suggestions

Sandwich fillings
  • Cream cheese and spring onion
  • Tuna and sweetcorn
  • Prawn
  • Cheese and marmite
  • Cheese and pickle
  • Egg mayonnaise
  • Tinned mackerel (cheaper than tuna)
  • Shredded chicken breast, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato
  • Banana and honey
Non-sandwich suggestions
  • Falafel in pitta bread
  • Hummus and pitta strips
  • Avocado, peppers, lettuce
  • Chicken caesar salad
  • Pasta with tuna and mayonnaise
  • Pasta with tomato and mozzarella
  • Rice with peas, sweetcorn and feta
  • Waldorf salad
  • Greek salad
  • Couscous with roasted vegetables

What's the causal link? The researchers believe the salt and chemicals used in the preserving of such meat products may be causing the health problems.

Isn't there a link between eating processed meats and an unhealthy lifestyle anyway? Yes, but even once researchers had taken out those factors, processed meat consumption still had an impact. And the impact is far greater with processed meats than with red meat.

So what should we be cutting down on? Sausages, bacon, ham, hot dogs, salamis - anything which has been smoked, cured, salted or has any preservatives added to it.

Is all mince bad? No, simply mincing meat doesn't mean it's processed. Processing is anything food producers do to extend a meat product's shelf life or alter its make-up.

So, if you or your butcher mince meat that's OK, but if you eat mince meat in a burger that contains anything other than mince that's not OK.

And it's not a matter of price or quality, it's a matter of food category: gourmet sausages and budget sausages are both processed.

Should we cut down or cut out? Definitely cut down, ideally including leaner cuts of meat, and more pulses and vegetables in your family's diet.

"My recommendation is to limit the [total] amount of meat to about 300g to 600g a week," says lead researcher Sabine Rohrnman. "I'd say it's fine to eat bacon and sausages, but not in high amounts and not every day."

* Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition

Last updated: over 5 years ago