Epic study finds processed meat and early death link

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A bacon sandwich.
The study defined processed meat as including bacon, ham, sausages and ready meal fillings. Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Oh no, not again.

Bangers, bacon and beef pies are going to give you cancer and heart attacks.

That's what the front pages of the papers are telling us yet again. But is it true? And why is the campaign against processed meat spoiling our breakfast yet again?

Well today sees the results of a crucial scientific study. It's called EPIC and it certainly is epic. It was set up two decades ago to try to spot links between what we eat and what we die of. Scientifically, its credentials are impeccable. It was started by the branch of the World Health Organisation that looks at cancer.

And its findings are very reliable. Why? Two reasons. First it's very big - half a million people in 10 European countries were studied. Statistically, the bigger a study, the better - the more likely it is to produce a true picture.

Sausages on a barbeque.
The study found the risk of dying is much higher if you eat a lot of processed meats. Credit: Hendrik Schmidt/DPA/Press Association Images

Secondly, most studies of diet and cancer look at people who've got cancer and ask them what they ate 10 or 20 years ago, looking for possible links. The trouble is people can't remember. So this study enrolled half a million people, asked them what they ate and then followed them for over a decade to see what diseases they got. Much more reliable.

And what did they find? First, your risk of dying (from anything) is much higher if you eat a lot of processed meat (pies, bacon, ham, sausages). Your risk of dying from heart disease goes up massively and your risk of dying from cancer goes up a good bit (about 10 per cent).

They're talking about processed meat here NOT red meat. In fact they're saying a little red meat does you no harm. But when it comes to the British breakfast, you shouldn't be eating more than a rasher of bacon or half a sausage a day. That's a pretty miserable fry-up.

Enough of the preaching. We all know pie and mash isn't good for us - this research just spells it out in painful detail. What you do about it is up to you. Personally, I try to eat more chicken, more fish and more veg. But I still enjoy the occasional breakfast fry up and I'm not going to give it up.