High consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases but also to cancer
People who eat a lot of processed meat such as bacon, sausages, ham and burgers run a greater risk of premature death and developing conditions such as cancer and heart disease, research shows. Processed meat has been modified to either extend its shelf life or change the taste and the main methods are smoking , curing, or adding salt or preservatives. Simply putting beef through a mincer does not mean the resulting mince is “processed” unless it is modified further. Processed meat includes bacon, hot dogs, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, salami and ham as well as canned meat and meat-based sauces. It is the chemicals involved in the processing which could be increasing the risk of cancer. High temperature cooking, such as on a barbeque, can also create carcinogenic chemicals.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency affiliated with WHO, has evaluated the carciogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. If they were all had an extra 50g of bacon a day for the rest of their lives then the risk would increase by 18% to around seven in 100 people getting bowel cancer.
But a small amount of red meat also seems to benefit health, because it contains important nutrients and minerals, they add. Red meat does have nutritional value too and is a major source of iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Risks rise in line with the level of consumption. The results are in line with previous studies. Deputy head of science at the World Cancer Research Fund, Dr Rachel Thompson, said the research bore out its own findings in 2007 – disputed by the meat industry at the time – about the health risks of processed meat.
The study’s findings were not robust enough to justify changing public health advice. The fact those who consumed the largest amounts of processed meat also displayed other unhealthy habits meant it was hard to confidently ascribe risk of death to meat eating alone, Dr. Carrie Ruxton explained. On the other hand these finding further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat. Therefore, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations, these results may enabling governments and/or international regulatory agencies to conduct assessments.
People should not avoid bacon or salami (or other processed food, just in case) because they think it’s going to kill them, because it won’t. We can’t say that from this study. But we do know that processed meat has a higher salt and fat content, so having bacon or salami in moderation, and switching to lean red meat products, is a good idea. People who do love to eat processed meat should try to eat a more varied diet, such as chicken, fish, beans or lentils.
1. Véronique Bouvard, Dana Loomis, Kathryn Z Guyton, Yann Grosse, Fatiha El Ghissassi, Lamia Benbrahim-Tallaa, Neela Guha, Heidi Mattock, Kurt Straif, International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology, 2015 (in press)
2. World Health Organization. “Processed meat can cause cancer.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 October 2015.
3. Rohrmann et al. Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. BMC Medicine (2013) 11:63