A DIET packed with sausages, ham, bacon and other processed meats appears to be linked to an increased risk of dying young, a study of half a million people across Europe suggests.
The research, which involved participants from ten different European countries, highlights links between a diet high in processed meat content and heart disease and cancer.
Researchers, writing in the journal BMC Medicine, also concluded that salt and chemicals used in the preservation of meat may damage health.
The study followed people from ten European countries over an average of nearly 13 years.
Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about what they had eaten in the previous 12 months.
Over a typical follow up time of 12.7 years, the risk of dying from any cause was 44 per cent greater for high processed meat consumers.
Rates of premature death rose with the quantity of processed meat eaten.
High processed meat consumption led to a 72 per cent increased risk of dying from heart disease, and an 11 per cent increased risk of dying from cancer.
Study leader Professor Sabine Rohrmann, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, said: "Risks of dying earlier from cancer and cardiovascular disease also increased with the amount of processed meat eaten.
"Overall, we estimate that 3 per cent of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 grams of processed meat per day."
The findings are yet more bad news for fans of processed meat in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, which has led many to question the origins of their food.
Epic (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study recruited men and women aged 35 to 70 with widely ranging diets from 10 European countries.
In the study meats were grouped into red, white and processed.
Processed meat included ham, bacon, sausages and ready meal fillings.
Red meat included pork, horse and goat as well as beef and lamb, while white meat incorporated chicken, turkey, duck and rabbit.
Over the follow-up period a total of 5,556 participants died from heart and artery disease, 9,861 from cancer, and 1,068 from respiratory diseases.
High consumption of processed meat was defined as 160 or more grams per day, roughly equivalent to two sausages and a slice of bacon.
In general, diets high in processed meat were linked to unhealthy lifestyles. Men and women who ate the most processed meat ate the fewest fruits and vegetables, and were more likely to smoke.
Men, but not women, who ate a lot of meat also tended to have high level of alcohol consumption.
The researchers adjusted the data to take account of these and other factors that might have influenced the results.
Eating both red meat and poultry were not associated with significant increases in mortality risk, and small quantities of red meat appeared to be beneficial.
The authors pointed out that red meat contains essential nutrients and minerals that might be missing from a vegetarian diet.
Red meat also contains potentially harmful saturated fat and cholesterol. However, these were present at much higher levels in processed meat products, as well as preservatives and colourants linked to cancer, said the scientists.
The researchers concluded: "The results of our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, particularly due to cardiovascular diseases but also cancer.
"As processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption."
Dietician Tracy Parker, from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: "This research suggests processed meat, such as sausages and burgers, may be linked to an increased risk of early death.
"However, the people who ate the most processed meat in this study also made other unhealthy lifestyle choices. They were found to eat less fruit and vegetables and were more likely to smoke, which may have had an impact on results.
"Red meat can still be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. Opting for leaner cuts and using healthier cooking methods such as grilling will help to keep your heart healthy. If you eat lots of processed meat, try to vary your diet with other protein choices such as chicken, fish, beans or lentils.
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