Diets laden with pies, sausages, and ready meals can lead to an early death, a major study has shown.
Research involving half a million people highlights links between processed meat and heart disease and cancer.
It also shows that people who eat a lot of the meat products have a significantly greater chance of dying prematurely than those consuming low amounts.
Over a typical follow up time of 12.7 years, the risk of dying from any cause was 44% greater for high processed meat consumers.
Rates of premature death rose with the quantity of processed meat eaten.
High processed meat consumption led to a 72% increased risk of dying from heart disease, and an 11% increased risk of dying from cancer.
Study leader Professor Sabine Rohrmann, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, said: “Risks of dying earlier from cancer and cardiovascular disease also increased with the amount of processed meat eaten.
“Overall, we estimate that 3% of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 grams of processed meat per day.”
The findings, reported in the journal BMC Medicine, come in the wake of the horse meat scandal which has caused people to question the origins of their food.
Epic (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study recruited men and women aged 35 to 70 with widely ranging diets from 10 European countries.
Participants were filled in questionnaires about the food they had consumed over the previous 12 months.
Meats were grouped into red, white and processed. Processed meat included ham, bacon, sausages and ready meal fillings.
Red meat included pork, horse and goat as well as beef and lamb, while white meat incorporated chicken, turkey, duck and rabbit.
Over the follow-up period a total of 5,556 participants died from heart and artery disease, 9,861 from cancer, and 1,068 from respiratory diseases.
High consumption of processed meat was defined as 160 or more grams per day.
In general, diets high in processed meat were linked to unhealthy lifestyles. Men and women who ate the most processed meat ate the fewest fruits and vegetables, and were more likely to smoke.
Men, but not women, who ate a lot of meat also tended to have high level of alcohol consumption.
The researchers adjusted the data to take account of these and other factors that might have influenced the results.
Eating both red meat and poultry were not associated with significant increases in mortality risk, and small quantities of red meat appeared to be beneficial.
The authors pointed out that red meat contains essential nutrients and minerals that might be missing from a vegetarian diet.
Red meat also contains potentially harmful saturated fat and cholesterol. However, these were present at much higher levels in processed meat products, as well as preservatives and colourants linked to cancer, said the scientists.
The researchers concluded: “The results of our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, particularly due to cardiovascular diseases but also cancer.
“As processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption.”