A recent meta-analysis (study of studies) out of Stockholm, Sweden has suggested that increased consumption of processed meats like pepperoni, sausage and bacon increases the risk of cancer of the pancreas in people who consume them daily. Reviewing the study, I find the data intriguing and a large study designed to answer this question seems imperative, given the large amounts of consumption of these products in the US and throughout the world.
What did they find specifically?
Eating more than 50 gm (1.8 oz) of processed meat per day was associated with an increase of almost 1 in 5 in the risk of developing cancer of the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is a very serious cancer, with a survival rate five years after diagnosis of about 5.5%. Prior studies have already established an association between consumption of processed meat and stomach and colorectal cancers.
It is important to understand that all this and previous studies have shown is correlation or association between the two things. They do not show that the consumption of the processed meat is proven to cause the cancer, they simply show that the risk of the cancer is increased in those people who consume more processed meat. It is possible (maybe even probable) that part of any association between the consumption of processed meat and any cancer will be due to the loss from the diet in the individual consuming the meat of an equivalent amount of fresh fruits and vegetables or other foods higher in fiber. Many studies have established the importance of dietary fiber load in the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.
This evidence also cannot prove that there is some other component of processed meat that is the primary carcinogen rather than the meat itself. Indeed, the idea that nitrites used to preserve the meats that are the primary cause of the association is mentioned in the article. This article is not a conclusive study, since it is a meta-analysis and not a prospective study. However, other lines of evidence do seem to warrant the conclusion at this point that the healthiest practice would be to avoid daily consumption of processed meats and limit their consumption to very rare occasions. Most importantly, consume lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and other foods high in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble.