Eating a single serving of processed meat per day might increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, a new study suggests. Experts say the cancer risk is still small, but reducing the amount of processed meat in your diet is a healthy move.
Based on a review of seven previously published studies, Swedish researchers found the risk of pancreatic cancer was 19 percent higher among men and women who ate roughly 4 ounces of processed meat per day. That's about one link of sausage or four pieces of bacon. The study was published in the British Journal of Cancer.
"Right now, your lifetime risk of getting pancreatic cancer is 1.4 percent," said ABC News senior health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. "If you have a serving of processed meat per day, your risk would go up to 1.7 percent; still very small."
Pancreatic cancer affects roughly one in 65 men and women, according to the National Cancer Institute. But because it's usually advanced by the time it's detected, the five-year survival rate is only 5.5 percent.
Although the cancer's cause is unknown, it's more common among people who smoke, have diabetes or are obese, confounding variables that make it hard to tease out the role of processed meats alone. "When you're combining a lot of different studies, it's sometimes hard to take all of that into account," Besser said.
Processed meats have also been linked to colon and bladder cancer. And because they're high in salt and fat, they can raise the risk of other health problems, too. "We've always said don't eat a lot of processed meats," Besser said.
As for the cancer link, the study authors suspect it might stem from nitrites, chemical preservatives broken down in the stomach and carried to the pancreas through the bloodstream. "If you want to cut down on that," Besser said, "you can look for products that don't have nitrites."
The American Meat Institute Foundation maintains that red and processed meat is "a healthy part of a balanced diet" and that nutrition decisions should be based on the total body of evidence, not single studies.
"Too often, epidemiological findings are reported as 'cased closed' findings, as if a researcher has discovered the definitive cause of a disease or illness," AMIF president James Hodges said in a statement. "All of these studies struggle to disentangle other lifestyle and dietary habits from meat and processed meat and admit that they can't do it well enough to use their conclusions to accurately recommend people change their dietary habits. What the total evidence has shown, and what common sense suggests, is that a balanced diet and a healthy body weight are the keys to good health."