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A new study has found that eating processed meats such as hot dogs, sausage, bacon and deli meat may dramatically increase risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

Study researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) used results of 20 relevant studies, comprising 1,218,380 individuals from 10 countries on four continents (North America, Europe, Australia and Asia) to compare rates of heart disease and diabetes among people eating processed meats versus those eating unprocessed red meats.

They found that on average, each 1.8 oz daily serving of processed meat was associated with a 42% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 19% higher risk of developing diabetes. In contrast, the study showed no associating between eating unprocessed red meat and increased risk of heart disease or diabetes.

For this study, processed meats refer to those meats preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by adding chemical preservatives, such as bacon, deli or luncheon meats, hot dogs and sausages. Unprocessed red meats included beef, lamb and pork.

The study, authored by Renata Micha RD, PhD, Sarah K. Wallace BA, and Dariush Mozaffarian MD, DrPH, appears in the May 17, 2010 online issue of Circulation, a publication of the American Heart Association.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, causing 26% of all deaths. In 2006, 631,636 people died of heart disease.

According to a CDC, diabetes affects nearly 24 million people in the United States.

“Although most dietary guidelines recommend reducing meat consumption, prior individual studies have shown mixed results for relationships between meat consumption and cardiovascular diseases and diabetes,” said Renata Micha, lead author of the study said in a press release. “Most prior studies also did not separately consider the health effects of eating unprocessed red versus processed meats.”

Watch a video of Micha describing the findings.

The results of this study are bad news for the processed meat industry, especially before the summer grilling season. Consumers may alter their eating habits, buying less of the processed meats such as hot dogs.

Yearly supermarket sales of hot dogs alone (excluding Wal-Mart who does not report sales figures) top 1.6 billion dollars. According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, 38% of yearly hot dog sales occur during the “Hot Dog Season” between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The city of Los Angeles, CA ranks number one in hot dog consumption with New York City coming in second place.

The researchers believe salt, known to increase blood pressure, and nitrate preservatives, which can promote atherosclerosis and reduce glucose tolerance, may be the reason for the increased rate of heart disease and diabetes.

“When we looked at average nutrients in unprocessed red and processed meats eaten in the United States, we found that they contained similar average amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. In contrast, processed meats contained, on average, 4 times more sodium and 50% more nitrate preservatives,” said Micha. “This suggests that differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats, but not with unprocessed red meats.”

Micha recommends people avoid processed meats to lower their risks for these diseases.

The American Meat Institute (AMIF) released a statement strongly objecting to the study results, saying that the stands in contrast to other research and to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“This study did not achieve the standard threshold that would generate concern,” said AMIF President James H. Hodges. “At best, this hypothesis merits further study. It is certainly no reason for dietary changes.”

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