Eating a diet high in red or processed meats may raise the risk of pancreatic cancer by almost 70 percent, according to a major new study.

But the culprit may not be the saturated fat that usually is found in these meats. Instead, researchers suggest that cooking methods, such as charcoal grilling and broiling, and nitrate-based meat preservation techniques may be responsible for the increase in pancreatic cancer risk.

The study shows people who ate the most processed meats, such as sausage and luncheon meat, had a 68 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer compared with those who ate the least of these items.

People who ate the most pork and red meat had a 50 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer compared with those who rarely ate pork and red meat.

The results appear in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Previous studies have suggested that dietary factors like meat, dairy product, and egg consumption may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, but so far the results of other studies have been mixed.

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Researchers say nearly 32,000 Americans were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and most of them will die from the disease. This is because pancreatic cancer is most often diagnosed late in its course. Less than 5 percent of people with pancreatic cancer live more than five years after diagnosis.

Therefore, identifying risk factors that may contribute to the development of pancreatic cancer has been a major topic of recent research. Smoking, family history of pancreatic cancer, and having the diagnosis of diabetes are known risk factors already. Other factors are being male, increasing age, and ethnicity.

In this study, researchers examined the association between intake of meat, other animal products, fat, and cholesterol and the risk of developing pancreatic cancer in more than 180,000 people. During seven years of follow-up, 482 cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed.

Researchers found a significant link between high amounts of processed meat, pork, and red meat eaten and pancreatic cancer risk.

For example:

—An average of 41 cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed per 100,000 people each year among those who ate the most processed meat compared with 20 cases among those who ate the least.

—People who ate the highest levels of pork or red meat had a 50 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least.

No significant association was found between the amount of poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, total fat, saturated fat, or cholesterol in people’s diet and their risk of pancreatic cancer.

Since fat was unrelated to pancreatic cancer risk, researchers say cancer-causing substances resulting from meat preparation techniques may be responsible for the increase in pancreatic cancer risk.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Nöthlings, U. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Oct. 5, 2005; vol 97: pp 1458-1465. News release, Journal of the National Cancer Institute.