Processed vs Unprocessed Meat: What Are The Health Impacts?

Everywhere you turn, there is a ton of information about why you shouldn’t eat too much red meat. 

But, not much research talks about the actual impact of processed meats on heart health. 

Eating processed goodies is all the rage right now.

Countless Americans favor processed meats over unprocessed options. Especially foods like bacon, processed turkey, ham, dinner sausages, etc. 

Processed turkey is the go-to lunch meat, making up 31.8% of U.S. processed lunch meat sales. 

Data suggests that overindulging in processed meats has roughly 20% to 40% higher risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality. 

The reason for that is the preservatives. The extra nitrous and sodium compounds are added when the meat is processed and heated. 

The difference in the amount of sodium used in processed vs unprocessed meat is substantial. 

There is a 400% larger sodium content in processed meat. 

Excessive consumption of dietary salt can cause havoc to your blood pressure, making you prone to hypertension. 

In other words, it is becoming a notable risk factor for heart and kidney problems. 

Many theories assess the impact of salt on the human body, particularly in processed goodies. 

We decided to look at a more recent study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

Experts evaluated the link between processed vs unprocessed meat intake with CVD and mortality in 21 countries. 

We wanted to see whether their data aligns with the older research. 

We then discuss some practical advice on how to make healthier food choices when it comes to eating meat. 

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A Study on The Effects Of Processed Vs Unprocessed Meat 

Dietary guidelines suggest you limit red meat consumption. This is mainly due to the major source of long- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids. They can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease (CVD). 

But, there isn’t enough data about the link between the intake of processed meat vs unprocessed. 

That’s why experts decided to shed some light on this particular issue. They conducted a study of 134,297 individuals from 21 different countries. 

They monitored the patient’s food habits and intake to see if eating either processed meat or unprocessed varieties would be associated with a significant CVD and mortality. 

Based on the results, the increased intake of unprocessed red meat wasn’t significantly linked with total mortality or major CVD. Individuals consumed about 250g of unprocessed red meat a week. There was also no association found in individuals who consumed poultry.

However, an increased intake of processed meat was, in fact, linked with a higher risk of total mortality and major CVD. 

In other words, processed meats can have a major impact on the CVD risk compared to their unprocessed counterparts.


What Is Processed Meat?

So, what meats are processed? Processed products are any meats that have gone through a process of smoking, curing, salting, and the introduction of chemical preservatives. As a result, these products, like processed beef, are packed with salt. 

Most examples of processed meats contain beef or pork. But, it’s not uncommon for them to feature other red meats, like liver, or meat by-products, such as blood. 

In order to boost the food’s durability and amplify its taste and color, processed meats tend to have a lot of minced fatty tissue (e.g., sausages).

The more you enjoy them, the more extra salt you add to your system, which keeps piling up. This amplifies your risk of gaining a few extra pounds, heart disease, and unstable blood pressure, which are all key factors of CVD. 

What Meats Are Processed?

Consumables classified as processed meat are affordable and practical lunchtime fixtures. They are some of the most convenient food options for someone on a busy schedule. 

Because of their delicious taste, these meats have been the go-to choice for many. Despite the numerous negative effects these products can have on people’s heart health. 

To recognize the foods you are eating, here is a list of processed meats that you should know about. 

Processed meat list

  • Cured bacon
  • Ham
  • Hot dogs
  • Salami
  • Sausages
  • Smoked meat
  • Corned beef
  • Cured and salted meat
  • Beef jerky
  • Dried meat
  • Canned meat

Some of the most used chemicals in these consumables are heme and nitrates. Heme is a pigment mostly present in red meat. In contrast, nitrates are included when the meat is supposed to maintain its freshness for an extended period of time. 

When cooked at very high temperatures, the meat also produces polycyclic and heterocyclic amines. Each of these chemicals is known to cause some amount of damage to the cells in the rectum and colon. As the damage keeps piling up, so does the risk of cancer. 

2015 reports suggest that the bigger the consumption rate of processed and red meat, the higher the odds of breast cancer. Processed meats, such as salami, bacon, and ham, are considered a Group 1 carcinogen.

This means an ample amount of research supports their odds of increasing the risk of cancer. Ideally, you should be aware of the list of processed meat you have at your disposal and eat not more than one serving of lean red meat a day. Or about two servings 3 to 4 times a week.

Remove the processed goodies from your food list completely, if possible, or keep them to a minimum. 

Products like Kransky, devon, and frankfurts can do more harm than good. For a healthier red meat alternative, turkey and chicken can help. Fish fillets, eggs, lentils, and chickpeas are also good meat alternatives. 

Note: The odds of experiencing bowel cancer increase 1.18 times for every 50g of processed meats you are eating a day. 

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How Can You Tell if Meat Is Unprocessed?

Check the label. Processed products, like processed chicken, processed red meat, and deli meat, are packed with ingredients and a ton of sugars you wouldn’t be using in your kitchen. 

Artificial food additives, like sweeteners or dyes, can be easily spotted. This is a classic example of treated meat with added refined sugar. So, what is unprocessed meat?

Unprocessed meats are the ones that keep their unaltered natural state. This means they don’t include any ingredients besides the meat. Therefore, meat that is not processed is a solid option for maintaining a healthy and balanced weight. 

You can tell if meat is unprocessed if it’s fresh, and hasn’t been packaged, cooked, canned, or changed in any way from its natural state. 

It is free of additives or any other types of additional chemicals. You can tell a product hasn’t been processed as it’s not ready to eat. In other words, you would need to cook it yourself for the meat to be edible.

But, the ingredients you add will be entirely up to you. You can use unprocessed meat to limit your salt intake and pick healthier spices when making the food. 

Other than meat, you can stock up on additional unprocessed goodies, which are predominantly seen as healthy foods.

Fresh veggies and fruits should be a top priority. Considering they are packed with minerals, vitamins, fiber, and nutrients. 

Seasonal produce is best. But, you can also enjoy the frozen varieties. Incorporating options like these in your diet can help keep the heart in tip-top shape. They can fend off the risk of elevated blood pressure, heart problems, and diabetes.

You are looking for labels that feature only natural, simple ingredients. For example, when you want to eat something with the meat, then you might want to opt for whole grains, chickpeas, lentils, and beans. Legumes are another great source of nutrients that you shouldn’t be skipping.

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What Meat Is Healthiest?

Now that you know what meat is not processed let’s look at the healthiest non-processed meats. Many types of meat could make a healthy addition to your high meat diet. 

This is especially true of options like fish and shellfish, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, and lamb. Seafood is loaded with nutrients, such as minerals, vitamins, fiber, and amino acids.

Seafood, like shellfish and fish, is an essential food for the human body. They are held in high regard due to the abundance of high-quality proteins they offer. 

Alongside nutrients that help with growth and promote normal bodily functions. Poultry is, without a doubt, another valuable food.

Research indicates that options like chicken and turkey have solid nutritional quality, low collagen levels, and highly digestible proteins. 

They are packed with vitamins and can be a major component of a balanced diet. Go to your local store or supermarket to know where to buy unprocessed meat.

When paired with veggies, poultry can come in handy in curbing the excess weight. It can also aid in managing the risk of CVD, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. 

To top it all off, poultry is viewed to have a neutral or moderately protective cancer risk. In part, it can help boost your overall health. 

There is no shortfall of nutrients when it comes to eating beef. However, it is also high in saturated fats and cholesterol. 

If you are going overboard with the portions, then odds are, fatty deposits can stack up in the blood. So, beef can be healthy if you are eating it in moderation. 

On the other hand, Veal is healthier than beef, as it has less cholesterol and fat. Lamb is a great source of omega-3 fats, mainly grass-fed lamb. 

But, just like beef and veal, lamb meat should also be consumed in moderation. So, if you are looking to ramp up the protein intake with dairy and meat, make sure to supply your body with all the nutrients it needs.


Some studies have looked into the health effects of consuming processed vs unprocessed meat. People are wondering if processed meat is bad for you. The truth is that consuming too much bacon, hot dogs, and canned meats can set your overall health on a downward spiral. Many experts found a link between processed meats and diabetes and heart disease.

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  1. Micha R, Michas G, Mozaffarian D. Unprocessed red and processed meats and risk of coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes–an updated review of the evidence. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2012.
  2. Romaina Iqbal et al on behalf of the PURE study, Associations of unprocessed and processed meat intake with mortality and cardiovascular disease in 21 countries [Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) Study]: a prospective cohort study, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 114, Issue 3, September 2021.
  3. Guo J, Wei W, Zhan L. Red and processed meat intake and risk of breast cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2015.
  4. Hosomi R, Yoshida M, Fukunaga K. Seafood consumption and components for health. Glob J Health Sci. 2012.
  5. Marangoni F, Corsello G, Cricelli C, Ferrara N, Ghiselli A, Lucchin L, Poli A. Role of poultry meat in a balanced diet aimed at maintaining health and wellbeing: an Italian consensus document. Food Nutr Res. 2015. 

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