Americans continue to eat as much processed meat and as little fish as they did 18 years ago, finds study

Researchers say given the strong evidence on processed meat consumption and cancer risk, the current study findings support further actions to increase the public's awareness of the health risks associated with processed meat


                            Americans continue to eat as much processed meat and as little fish as they did 18 years ago, finds study

Americans eat as much processed meat and as little fish as they did 18 years ago, despite public health guidelines emphasizing otherwise, according to a new assessment. Moreover, one-quarter of US adults are still eating more unprocessed red meat than the recommended level, and less than 15% meet the guidelines for fish/shellfish consumption, according to findings published by Elsevier in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"The mean consumption of processed meat among US adults has remained unchanged in the last 18 years. The top five processed meats consumed by US adults in 2015-2016 were luncheon meat, sausage, hot dog, ham, and bacon, accounting for 39.3%, 24.4%, 9.4%, 9.4%, and 4.6%, respectively, of the total processed meat consumption in the US,” says the paper.

The study, however, also reveals that Americans are eating less beef and more chicken than they did 18 years ago, and, for the first time, consumption of poultry exceeds that of unprocessed red meat. There was also a decreasing trend of unprocessed red meat consumption among US adults, from 340 grams per week in 1999-2000 to 284 grams per week in 2015- 2016.

"The price increase of unprocessed red meat accompanied by the price decrease of poultry may have contributed to the observed trends. The American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Funds/American Cancer Institute for Cancer Research recommendations for limiting red meat consumption for cancer prevention may have affected consumers' preference for consuming white meat over red meat. In a recent survey of US adults, over half the participants who reported eating less meat now compared to three years ago ranked cost and health as the two primary reasons for reducing meat consumption," says the paper.

The study used a nationally representative sample comprising dietary data from 43,995 US adults, aged 20 years and older, who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), through 2016. The investigators assessed trends in consumption of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish over the past 18 years and their purchase locations.

Comparison of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data from 1999-2000 to 2015-2016.

While grocery store or supermarket was the primary purchase location for processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry, and fish/shellfish consumed by US adults in 2015-2016, the fast-food restaurant was the secondary purchase location.

Processed meat refers to meat (including red meat or poultry) transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or with the addition of chemical preservatives. The research team said that the US is ranked among the top nations with the largest amount of beef, pork, and lamb consumption, estimated to be 109 lb per capita in 2017.  The per-capita consumption of red meat in the US is expected to increase to 112 lb by 2027, they add.

"Despite growing public health concerns about processed meat consumption, there have been no changes in the amount of processed meat consumed by US adults over the last 18 years. Findings of this study can inform public health policy priorities for improving diet and reducing chronic disease burden in the US. Because stores and fast food restaurants are main purchase locations for processed meat, future policies may prioritize these as primary sites of intervention," say researchers.

Recent studies have linked excessive consumption of processed meat and to a lesser extent, unprocessed red meat, to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers. For example, two extensive European studies published in May 2019 found positive associations between consumption of highly processed or ultra-processed foods and risk of cardiovascular disease and death.

Researchers say given the strong evidence on processed meat consumption and cancer risk, the current study findings support further actions to increase the public's awareness of the health risks associated with processed meat. They recommend future research to identify barriers to reducing processed meat consumption, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of potential public health interventions and policies for reducing processed meat consumption in the US, such as nutrition quality standards and health warning labels.

"While factors other than health (for example, social, cultural, and economic) can influence Americans' food choices, the lack of widespread awareness of health risks associated with processed meat may have contributed to the lack of consumption change in the past 18 years. Our findings support further actions to increase the public awareness of the health risks associated with high processed meat consumption in the US," lead investigator Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston, shares in a statement.

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