A new study has suggested that a high intake of processed meat could slightly increase the risk of developing breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Wednesday 3 January 2018      Health information

The team of scientists at the University of Glasgow firstly carried out a study using data from the UK Biobank, which was then included in a meta-analysis of eleven studies, with findings published in the European Journal of Cancer.

In the initial UK Biobank study, the team analysed data from 262,195 participants aged 40-69. Over seven years, 4,819 of these women developed breast cancer. Upon detailed analysis, researchers identified that consumption of more than 9g of processed meat per day was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Incorporating the Biobank study into a meta-analysis alongside ten other studies, researchers were able to analyse data from almost 1.7 million women, which included over 40,000 breast cancer cases. The team uncovered that processed meat consumption was associated with post-menopausal - but not pre-menopausal - breast cancer. However, in both the UK Biobank study and the meta-analysis, there was found to be no association between red meat consumption and breast cancer risk.

Whilst the Biobank study cohort was adjusted for confounding factors, not every study included in the meta-analysis had made the same adjustments. As such, it remains unclear whether the increased risk seen was solely as a result of high processed meat consumption, or whether other factors were in play.

Dr Tom Beattie, Health Information Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“That this large meta-analysis suggests a high intake of processed meat may slightly increase breast cancer risk among post-menopausal women is interesting, and now requires further investigation.

This link is hard to untangle as we all eat a wide variety of foods and our diets change over time – with complex diet and lifestyle interactions also making it very difficult to calculate how specific food groups influence an individual’s risk of the disease. For example, people who eat more processed meat might also drink more alcohol.

That said, consistent evidence has shown that a healthy and varied diet – rich in fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains and limited in processed meat – can help women lower their breast cancer risk because it helps them maintain a healthy weight. There are also a number of well-established health benefits to avoiding processed and red meat in preventing heart disease and colon cancer, and we’d encourage women of all ages to limit their intake as part of a balanced diet.”