Americans are still eating a lot of processed meats, study finds

Ham, luncheon meat, sausage and bacon have been linked to cancer, obesity and heart disease, but Americans still can’t kick their processed meat habit.

Although American adults are eating less red meat than they did 18 years ago, processed meat consumption has remained the same — accounting for one quarter of all red meat and poultry eaten in the United States every year, according to a study published Friday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Researchers at Tufts University evaluated nearly two decades of National Center of Health Statistics diet recall data collected from nearly 44,000 adults, ages 20 and older, in two-year cycles. The dates were 1999-2000 and 2015-16.

The top five processed meats consumed by American adults weekly, in order:

  • Luncheon meat
  • Sausage
  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Bacon

And despite study after study showing the health benefits of eating two servings of fish a week, especially seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids, Americans aren’t consuming any more fish and shellfish than they did in 1999.

“Americans consume more processed meat than fish for each year,” said study author Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Concerns about mercury content in fish and the protein’s high cost could both be contributing factors keeping seafood from gaining popularity in the American diet. Education could be another.

Processed meat is cheap, convenient, it’s everywhere and everybody loves the way this stuff tastes.

“There’s still a lack of awareness around the benefits of consuming fish and the negative impacts of consuming processed meat,” Zhang said. “People may look at protein as protein, but we’re realizing increasingly that the source of protein matters.”

Yet even for bacon-lovers who know it’s bad, its appeal is strong.

“Processed meat is cheap, convenient, it’s everywhere and everybody loves the way this stuff tastes,” said Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. Nestle was surprised to see that the data showed no significant correlation between people of certain income levels or race eating more processed meats.