by Madeleine Rouviere
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in October linking processed meats to cancer, stating that consumption of processed meats increases risk of cancer, while consumption of red meat “probably” causes cancer. This bold causal statement has attracted lots of attention and conversation, but is all the accompanied shock and panic justified? People have been told for decades that eating processed foods is not beneficial to health. Even vegetarians and meat-lovers alike can agree that eating bacon every day is a bad idea!
This review analyzed over 800 epidemiological studies from around the world investigating the relationship between cancer and processed and red meat.* The conclusion? That eating 50 grams of processed meat a day (less than two slices of bacon) increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. Although there was limited evidence, red meats were labeled as “probably carcinogenic” too.¹
The BBC illustrated what the 18% increase in cancer rate looks like. In the UK, around six out of 100 people get colorectal or bowel cancer at some point in their lives. If these people were given an extra 50 grams of bacon a day to eat for the rest of their lives, then their risk of bowel cancer would increase by 18%, inflicting around seven out of every 100 people, or 7% of the UK population instead of 6%.²
There are a lot of diet-related health claims circulating in our world today. Is it good that this study is getting so much publicity? Probably. Dietitians and health professionals have always recommended lower consumption of processed and high-fat, high-sodium foods, but if this study helps mobilize consumers to action by increasing consciousness of daily food habits, then it is a step in the right direction! However, if this study, with its high media coverage and bold headlines on social media, scares the public into automatically eliminating meat from their diets, it could be problematic.
As with any research or study, especially in the nutrition realm, it is important to put the findings in perspective and to note that correlation does not equal causation. Positive associations of colorectal cancer with consumption of processed meat does not automatically indicate that people are developing cancer as a direct result of eating processed meat, a conclusion the media has been eager to jump to.
That being said, these are the important points to remember:
- It is not necessary to cut all processed and red meat out of the diet.
- All foods should be consumed in moderation, balance, and variety, as part of a total diet approach. Enjoying a warm Reuben melt or eating a hot dog at a summer picnic has a place in a healthy overall eating pattern and lifestyle!
- Red meat is a rich source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12 in our diets unlike soda, for instance, which contributes absolutely no health benefits.
- Other factors, particularly physical activity, alcohol, smoking, and body weight, should be the main focus if trying to avoid cancer. Eighty-six percent of lung cancers are caused by tobacco, while 21% of bowel cancers are caused by processed or red meat.²
The take-home message: Don’t stress too much over the WHO study findings. Analyze your meat consumption within the context of other dietary and lifestyle factors, BUT if you are starting off every day with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, consider foregoing the bacon at least a few days a week!
*Processed meat refers to meat that has undergone preparation methods such as salting, curing, fermentation, and smoking. Think hot dogs, bacon, sausages, salami, beef jerky, and ham. It is thought that the chemicals required to process meat are the driving carcinogenic agents.
*Red meat refers to unprocessed meat, such as beef, veal, pork, and lamb. ¹
- International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. World Health Organization. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncology 2015; [epub ahead of print]
- Gallagher, James. Processed meats do cause cancer? – WHO. Published October 26, 2015. Accessed November 15, 2015.