The massive study, involving around half a million European men and women from ten countries, finds an important association between the level of processed meat consumed and the risk of premature death.
Professor Sabine Rohrmann from the University of Zurich, who led this analysis explained that the risk of dying early from cancer and cardiovascular disease also increased with the amount of processed meat eaten.
“We estimate that 3% of all premature deaths can be attributed to the high consumption of processed meat,” said Rohrmann, adding that these deaths "could be prevented if people ate less than 20g processed meat per day."
Writing in BMC Medicine, the research team suggested that salt and other chemicals used to preserve meat - such as potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines - may be the be the reason for the association.
Rohrmann and her colleagues found that people who over 40 grams of processed meat - including sausage products, salami or ham - per day have an increased risk of mortality compared to those who eat fewer than 20 grams a day.
“Therefore, the moderate consumption of up to 40 grams a day doesn’t increase the mortality risk,” said Rohrmann, who noted that meat is a key source of essential B vitamins, and minerals such as iron.
This EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study involved data from 448,568 people in ten countries, who were followed for an average of 13 years.
The team reported that, in general, a diet high in processed meat was linked to other unhealthy choices; those who ate the most processed meat ate the fewest fruit and vegetables and were more likely to smoke.
Men who ate a lot of meat also tended to have a high alcohol consumption, said the team.
However, Rohrmann and her colleagues also showed that a person's risk of premature death (increased risk of all cause mortality) increased with the amount of processed meat eaten.
This is also true, they said, after correcting for confounding variables, although residual confounding cannot be excluded.
Consumption of a small amount of red meat appeared to be beneficial, said the researchers, who suggested that this may be because meat is an important source of nutrients and vitamins.