After adjusting for age, smoking status, and health conditions, a study of nearly 200,000 consumers found those who consumed the greatest amount of processed meats had a 67 per cent increase in risk over those participants with the lowest intake of this food category.
"The results suggest that carcinogenic substances related to meat preparation, rather than their inherent fat or cholesterol content, might be responsible for the association," said Ute Nöthlings, the study's lead investigator from the Cancer Research Center at the University of Hawaii.
Previous studies have suggested a link between meat consumption and pancreatic cancer, although results have been inconsistent.
For this latest study, researchers from the Cancer Research Center and USC investigated the relationship of diet to pancreatic cancer among 190,545 men and women of African-American, Japanese-American, Caucasian, Latino and Native Hawaiian origin.
An average follow-up of seven years yielded 482 incident cases of pancreatic cancer.
The researchers found that the heavy consumption of processed meats resulted in the highest risk for pancreatic cancer. A diet rich in pork and red meat also increased pancreatic cancer risk by about 50 per cent, compared to their counterparts who ate less meat.
Consumption of poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs showed no link to pancreatic cancer risk, nor did overall intake of total fat, saturated fat, or cholesterol.
"An analysis of fat and saturated fat intakes showed a significant increase in risk for fats from meat, but not from dairy products, indicating that fat and saturated fat are not likely to contribute to the underlying carcinogenic mechanism,"said Nöthlings.
The scientists suggest that chemical reactions that occur during the preparation of processed meats might be responsible for the association. Such reactions can yield carcinogens including heterocyclic amines or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
"Our study is the largest of its kind to demonstrate a link between high consumption of processed meats over long periods of time and pancreatic cancer," said Nöthlings. The sample size allowed us to obtain statistically significant risk-estimates that support this hypothesis, he adds.