The World Health Organization (WHO) has today released a report on the cancer-causing effects of red meat and processed meat, and the news, as you might expect, isn’t good. Although there has been a smorgasbord of evidence in the last decade suggesting that the overconsumption of processed meat increases your chances of getting cancer – particularly bowel cancer – later in life, this new report highlights just how bad for you a few extra slices of bacon can be: Just 50 grams of processed meat a day increases your chance of developing bowel cancer by 18%. Consequently, the WHO has now classified processed meats as carcinogens. Red meat, on the other hand, is “probably carcinogenic” but there is limited evidence to support this at present.
These statements were made after consulting the findings of its specialized cancer research group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). After scrutinizing decades’ worth of data across more than 800 studies, it has come to the conclusion that a mass of processed meat equivalent to less than two slices of bacon increases the chance of someone getting bowel (colorectal) cancer by almost a fifth.
A carcinogen is any chemical substance or form of radiation that either damages the genetic material or disrupts the energy conversion processes (metabolism) of an organism, and processed food is thought to contain a large quantity of carcinogenic substances. Any meat that has been modified to increase its shelf-life or to improve its taste is called processed meat. This includes techniques such as smoking, curing, or adding salt or preservatives; it is the addition of these methods and chemicals that is thought to induce a carcinogenic effect in the human digestive system.
The WHO has given processed meats (sausages, salami, bacon, ham) the definition of being “carcinogenic to humans,” ranking it alongside alcohol, asbestos, arsenic, cigarettes and plutonium. This, of course, does not mean that a slice of bacon or ham is as dangerous to a person as one cigarette is. As BBC News reports, 34,000 deaths from cancer every year are possibly caused by diets high in processed meat. In contrast to this, there are roughly a million deaths from cancer caused by smoking and 600,000 caused by alcohol each year.
The WHO notes that there is limited evidence that 100 grams of red meat (pork, beef, lamb, veal) a day increased the risk of bowel cancer by 17%. While an increased incidence of pancreatic and prostate cancer were shown to be linked to consuming red meat, the link between red meat and these various cancers is currently not strong enough to issue a definitive statement on it, unlike processed meats.
As reported by BBC News, Professor Tim Key, from the charity Cancer Research UK and the University of Oxford, said: “This decision doesn't mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat, but if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn't going to do much harm – having a healthy diet is all about moderation.”
The WHO was quick to also stress the health benefits of eating red meat, noting that it is a valuable source of proteins, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.