Report: Processed Meat and Red Meat Can Cause Cancer

Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats can cause cancer as well as red meats, according to a new report by the World Health Organization’s research division. How much is too much?

We discuss the findings with Sara Haas, a dietician who voices WBBM’s "Eating Right," and Dustin Boler, an assistant professor in the department of animal sciences at the University of Illinois and member of the American Meat Science Association. 

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The Study

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans and processed meat as carcinogenic to humans. These statements were based on the IARC Working Group of 22 experts’ examination of more than 800 different studies on cancer; more than 700 epidemiological studies included data on red meat and more than 400 on processed meat.  

What’s the difference between red meat and processed meat?

WHO classifies red meat as “all mammalian muscle meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.”

(Alpha from Melbourne, Australia / Flickr) (Alpha from Melbourne, Australia/Flickr)

Processed meat is defined as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Most processed meats include pork or beef but can include other red meats, poultry, offal or meat by-products such as blood. 

Hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, bacon and beef jerky are all processed meats, as well as canned meats and meat-based preparations or sauces.

So, no more hot dogs, bacon or steak?

No, says the IARC study. You don’t have to give them up completely, but if they’re staples in your diet consider cutting back. 

“We need to take some time to reflect on what we’re consuming as individuals,” said Sara Haas, a registered and licensed dietician. “If you’re consuming things in excess amounts, look at what you’re doing and try to eat healthier. Make bacon a treat, instead of a daily consumption.”

Dustin Boler, an assistant professor and research in meat science at the University of Illinois, says eating processed meat is safe.

“When we go back in history, processing meat was always about keeping it safe,” he said. “Because of processing, we have a safe food supply. Processing meat is a good thing.”

How much is too much?

The more processed meat consumed, the greater the risk of cancer. Every 50 gram portion consumed daily of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent, according to an analysis of 10 studies.

As for red meat, that’s more difficult to decipher because the evidence connecting red meat consumption to cancer isn’t as strong. However, according to the IARC, data from the same studies suggest that for every 100 gram portion of red meat consumed daily the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 17 percent.

What types of cancer are associated with eating processed meat or red meat?

Processed meat causes colorectal cancer, according to the IARC Working Group, and an association with stomach cancer has also been observed.

Limited evidence shows an association between consuming red meat and colorectal cancer. Links to pancreatic and prostate cancer were also reported by the IARC.

How many people die from cancer caused by processed meat?

The Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) estimates 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be tied to diets high in processed meat. If reported associations between red meat and cancer are proven to be causal, the GBD estimates 50,000 cancer deaths per year could be associated with diets high in red meat.

What others are saying

News of WHO’s report went viral, with people chiming in on Twitter using the hashtags #redmeat, #processedmeat, #cancerbacon and #smugvegetarian.

The Onion penned an article “linking red meat to contentedly patting one’s belly,” several days after WHO's announcement.

After learning about WHO’s report, comedian Stephen Colbert questioned how “cured meat can be bad for you.” Watch Colbert’s reaction below.

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