The traditional meat-heavy British fry-up has never looked more unappetising thanks to research into diabetes carried out by our friends across the Channel.
A long-term study in France has found a link between sausages and bacon and type 2 diabetes, and it’s all to do with nitrates and nitrites.
Forms of nitrogen with different chemical structures, both nitrates and nitrites occur naturally in food, but the latter can be converted by bacteria or enzymes in the body into harmful nitrosamines. Nitrites are commonly used as a preservative to ensure processed meats don’t go off, to add colour and flavour, and to kill off botulism, one of the most dangerous kinds of food poisoning, caused by a bacterial toxin in pork (the name comes from the Latin word for sausage, botulus – something to think about when barbecue season arrives).
Those who took part in the seven-year study, which began in 2009, were asked to keep track of what they ate and to answer questions about their medical history and lifestyles and provide other social information. The researchers, nutritionists affiliated with the Sorbonne in Paris, found that those with a fondness for rashers and hot dogs had a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
According to the study, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes rose by more than a quarter (27 per cent) for those who ate food containing the highest amounts of nitrites, while the risk shot up by more than half (53 per cent) for those eating the highest amount of sodium nitrite, the additive that gives cured meat its colour and flavour.
It is, according to its authors, “the first large-scale cohort study to suggest a direct association between additives-originated nitrites and type 2 diabetes risk”. And the findings, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, can be believed because of the number of participants involved: 104,168.
While it may be one of the largest, this is far from the first study to identify a link between processed meat and poor health. A Harvard study in 2010 found that eating just 50g of processed meat could increase the risk of developing diabetes, while in 2015 the World Health Organisation said bacon, sausages, salami and the rest were as carcinogenic as cigarettes.
On the healthy side of the scales, meanwhile, a plant-based diet has been found in several studies to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, not only because people eat fewer meat and animal products, but because they are consuming more dietary fibre and have lower obesity levels. US scientists in 2019 found the greener the diet, the stronger the anti-diabetic link, while French boffins in 2013 suggested fruit and vegetables help neutralise harmful acids that caused disease, while animal products did the opposite.