The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, announced yesterday that eating red meat and processed meat does increase your chances of getting cancer. The research had been hinting that way for many years so the news does not really come as a surprise.
The only difference now is that the IARC has officially confirmed that processed meat (such as bacon, ham, sausages) DOES cause cancer and that red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat) is a probable carcinogen.
The IARC Working Group considered more than 800 studies conducted over the past 20 years that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets.
The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
“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,” says 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.”
Processed meat is now classified as “carcinogenic to humans” putting ham, bacon and sausages in the same category than alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes. Red meat is now classified as “probable carcinogen” with associations observed for colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.
This time it is not simply a case of eating “good meat & better meat” as the main culprits seem to be chemicals and preservatives added to processed meat and a chemical called haem (part of the red pigment) in red meat. Cooking methods such as grilling and barbecuing also create harmful chemicals that are damaging to health.
While this makes good headlines, it certainly does not mean that you are as likely to get cancer from processed meat than you are from smoking. To put this in context, in the UK one million deaths from cancer are caused by smoking and 600,000 are attributed to alcohol each year (source: Cancer Research UK). On the other hand, 34,000 deaths from cancer every year could be down to diets high in processed meat.
So should you be giving up on red meat and processed meat entirely? While I am the living proof that there is life beyond ham, bacon and sausages, you might prefer the moderation of a flexitarian diet. The odd bacon or ham sandwich is unlikely to hurt you but if your packed lunch or your child’s packed lunch regularly features processed meat then it is time for a rethink. This is particularly true if you might be predisposed to any of the cancers highlighted in the report.
Personally, the most important issue of today’s announcement is to see how government agencies will respond when it comes to reviewing their dietary advice. Their guidelines impact not only us the general public but also health professionals as well as schools and hospitals. My kids’ school lunch menu currently offers red meat and /or processed meat 3 days out of 5. That certainly can be improved.
Processed meats are cheap, tasty and convenient but I assure you that there are plenty of plant based options that are just as good. You’ll find plenty of meat free sandwich recipe ideas here.
If you are worried about protein, keep in mind that a varied plant-based diet including pulses, beans, seeds, nuts and wholegrains with the occasional portion of meat will provide enough protein and be beneficial to your health. And of course don’t forget to eat plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables.