Processed Red Meats Cause Cancer, WHO Says. Bacon, ham and sausages rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer, the World Health Organization has said, placing cured and processed meats in the same category as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic and tobacco.
In addition, the WHO says red meats including beef, pork, veal and lamb are "probably carcinogenic" to people.
A group of 22 scientists reviewed the evidence linking red meat and processed meat consumption to cancer, and concluded that eating processed meats regularly increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Their evidence review is explained in an article published in The Lancet.
The conclusion puts processed meats in the same category of cancer risk as tobacco smoking and asbestos. This does not mean that they are equally dangerous, says the International Agency for Research on Cancer — the agency within the WHO that sets the classifications. And it's important to note that even things such as aloe vera are on the list of possible carcinogens.
The IARC’s experts concluded that each 50-gram (1.8-ounce) portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC monographs programme. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
The decision from the IARC, after a year of deliberations by international scientists, will be welcomed by cancer researchers but it triggered an immediate and furious response from the industry, and the scientists it funds, who rejected any comparison between cigarettes and meat.
In a Q & A released by the IARC, the agency says that "eating meat has known health benefits," but it also points out that the cancer risk increases with the amount of meat consumed. As we've reported, studies show that the heaviest meat eaters tend to have the highest risk.
The IARC says high-temperature cooking methods (such as cooking meat in direct contact with a flame) produce more carcinogenic compounds. However, the group says there were not enough data "to reach a conclusion about whether the way meat is cooked affects the risk of cancer."
Susan Gapstur of the American Cancer Society says the society recommends "consuming a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant foods and limiting consumption of processed meat and red meat," she told us in a written statement.
The recommendation, Gapstur tells The Salt, is based on research. For instance, a systematic literature review on colorectal cancer published in 2011 by the World Cancer Research Fund found a statistically significant, 16 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer associated with each 100 grams of red and processed meat consumed. As the ACS points out, this is an amount of meat roughly equivalent in size to a deck of cards.
The Lancet paper points out that red meat also contains "high biological-value proteins and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron and zinc." And the North American Meat Institute says lots of research points to the benefits of red meat consumption.
"Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health," writes Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute, in a statement on the new WHO classification.
Carpenter says it's important to put this new classification in context. "IARC's panel was given the basic task of looking at hazards that meat could pose at some level, under circumstance, but was not asked to consider any off-setting benefits, like the nutrition that meat delivers or the implications of drastically reducing or removing meat from the diet altogether," the statement concludes.
Dr Elizabeth Lund – an independent consultant in nutritional and gastrointestinal health, and a former research leader at the Institute of Food Research, who acknowledges she did some work for the meat industry in 2010 – said red meat was linked to about three extra cases of bowel cancer per 100,000 adults in developed countries.
“A much bigger risk factor is obesity and lack of exercise,” she said. “Overall, I feel that eating meat once a day combined with plenty of fruit, vegetables and cereal fibre, plus exercise and weight control, will allow for a low risk of colorectal cancer and a more balanced diet.”
Exercise will allow for a low risk of colorectal cancer