The study of people in 10 European countries who were followed for an average of 13 years. In that time, there were about 26,000 deaths.
People who consumed more than 160 grams of processed meat a day — about two sausages and a slice of bacon — were 44 per cent more likely to die over the course of the study compared with those eating about 20 grams.
"The results of our analysis support a moderate postive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer," Prof. Sabine Rohrmann from the University of Zurich and his co-authors concluded in this week's issue of the journal BMC Medicine.
The researchers estimated three per cent of premature deaths could be prevented if all participants had eaten the lowest amount of processed meat.
"As processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption," they recommended.
There was no association between non-processed poultry, such as plain chicken breasts, and premature death.
"While we are focusing on processed meats, the other benefit of the study is to show what we need to do is to have a rounded intake of alternative protein," said Tracy Parker, a dietician with the British Heart Foundation.
The association held up after considering other risk factors. Men and women who ate the most processed meat ate the fewest fruit and vegetables and were more likely to smoke. Men who ate a lot of meat also tended to drink the most alcohol.