A Guilt-Free Hamburger

(Wall Street Journal) Maybe that juicy steak you ordered isn’t a heart-attack-on-a-plate after all.

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that the heart risk long associated with red meat comes mostly from processed varieties such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and cold cuts—and not from steak, hamburgers and other non-processed cuts.

The finding is surprising because both types of red meat are high in saturated fat, a substance believed to be partly responsible for the increased risk of heart disease. But the new study raises the possibility that when it comes to meat, at least, the real bad actor may be salt. Processed meats generally have about four times the amount of salt as unprocessed meats.

Processed meats such as bacon and sausage have four times the amount of salt as steak and hamburgers.

In a report that pooled data from 20 different studies from around the world, the researchers found that daily consumption of about two ounces of processed meat was associated with a 42% increased risk of heart disease and a 19% heightened chance of diabetes. By contrast, a four-ounce daily serving of red meat from beef, hamburger, pork, lamb or game wasn’t linked to any increased risk of heart disease. There was, however, a small, but statistically insignificant risk of diabetes.

While the study is far from definitive, researchers said the findings suggest that people, especially those already at risk of heart problems or with high blood pressure, should consider reducing consumption of bacon, processed ham, hot dogs and other packaged meats that have a high salt content. Salt increases blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

“The conventional wisdom is that red meats have higher saturated fat and cholesterol levels,” factors that have made all red meats potential culprits in raising the risk of cardiovascular disease, said Renata Micha, a research fellow in the Harvard School of Public Health’s epidemiology department. “But when you try to separate processed from unprocessed meats, you get an entirely different picture.” She is lead author of the study, which appears in Tuesday’s issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

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