In a study which could have significant implications for food policy in rural areas, a team of University of Washington researchers has demonstrated consumers of processed meats, such as SPAM, hot dogs and breakfast sausages, are twice as likely to develop diabetes.
The association between processed meats and diabetes has been established by previous studies, but the paper published in this month's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is one of the first to examine the linkage across a population. The researchers surveyed 2000 Native Americans from Arizona, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.
"Most people know processed meats are not healthy," says lead author Amanda Fretts, a senior research fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "But when you can demonstrate that in a population, it's an interesting story."
None of the subjects had diabetes at the start of the study. Five years later, 243 of study participants had developed the disease. There were 85 diagnosed cases among the 500 people who ate the most canned meat, and 44 such cases among the 500 people who reported eating the least.
Fretts stresses that the study did not attempt to prove the subjects' meat choices caused their diabetes: SPAM fans' other dietary decisions could also influence their overall health. "What's important is 50 percent of them developed diabetes by the time they were 55, so lowering processed meat may help," she says.
Processed meat has been a mainstay of Native diets since the early 20th century, when commodity food programs began distributing canned meat products. According to Fretts, about 68 percent of study participants eat processed meat twice a week.
"Canned meats are popular all over America," Fretts says, pointing out that the convenience stores which serve many rural communities aren't equipped to stock perishable proteins. She suggests her team's findings could help support policies promoting more food choices in rural grocery stores.