A study released today classifies processed meats as carcinogenic. The study, done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, looked at the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.
Processed meats are those that have been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other preservation or flavour enhancing processing. Products such as hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, biltong and beef jerky are included. A link was found between these meats and colorectal and bowel cancer, and to a lesser extent pancreatic and prostate cancers. Experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. According to the US National Cancer Institute, an average white man aged 50 has a 6% chance of developing colorectal cancer. An increase of 18% would take this risk to just over 7%1.
“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.”
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Unprocessed red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Red meat includes meats such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.
IARC researchers reviewed more than 800 studies looking at links between more than a dozen types of cancer and the consumption of red meat or processed meat in numerous countries with different diets.
”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC.“At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
Ahead of the study’s release, the meat industry reacted with fury to the prospect of its products being declared carcinogenic according to Financial Times. The North American Meat Institute (Nami) made accusations of “dramatic and alarmist over-reach”.
IARC Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat (in English)
1 This calculation is approximate. The starting percentage would need to be the average for the subset of those not eating processed meats for the calculation to be accurate.