Put down that bacon

Processed meats linked to greater cancer risk, says WHO

Graphic by Kelly Campbell.

If you’re reading this over breakfast, you may want to rethink what’s on your plate. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that eating processed meat can increase your risk of getting cancer.

The study, published in the Lancet Oncology, included the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A group of 22 experts on cancer research from 10 different countries met to review decades of research on the carcinogenicity of processed and red meats, and concluded that both had ties to developing colorectal cancer.

The IARC has specified that red meat is a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning it is classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” while processed meat is a Group 1 carcinogen, as the evidence linking it to cancer was enough to define it as “carcinogenic to humans.”

Processed meat includes any meat that has been modified to improve its shelf life through methods such as smoking the meat or adding preservatives. Some meat products that are considered processed include hot dogs, salami, and bacon.

As little as 50 grams of processed meat a day, about the equivalent of a hot dog, is enough to increase a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

The cancer risk from processed meat comes from the chemicals used in the method of processing. It is hypothesized that the nitrates and nitrites used for preserving meat, which are found in the salt used, turn into compounds called nitrosamines, which have carcinogenic qualities.

Other carcinogens can form when the meat is cooked at very high temperatures, such as pan-frying or barbecuing. This is, however, only a theory, and the root cause of the increased risk of cancer in processed meat is not clear just yet.

The news has promoted widespread discussion and speculation. There have been several misconceptions finding their way across the Internet, including the theory that eating processed meat is as bad for you as smoking.

Smoking and eating processed meats are both classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the IARC, but the similarities stop there. There are many things classified as Group 1 carcinogens (sunlight, for example) but this does not mean they are all equally likely to result in someone developing cancer.

For example, in the United Kingdom three per cent of cancer cases each year are thought to be caused by the consumption of red and processed meat, versus 19 per cent as the result of smoking cigarettes, according to Cancer Research UK.

Another myth is that processed meats marked as “natural” by their packaging are less likely to cause cancer. The unfortunate truth is that all processed meats contain nitrates, and it doesn’t matter how “natural” the source sounds.

After receiving a flurry of questions and concerns, the WHO reinforced their stance on processed meats by releasing a statement through their website. The statement confirms that the study “does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.”

So how does the reader put this information into perspective? The answer is not to necessarily cut out processed or red meats, which can be a part of a healthy diet, but to assess your own risk and act accordingly.

A person who occasionally eats processed or red meats within guidelines set by experts such as the Canadian Cancer Society – who recommend red meat be consumed up to three times a week, and processed meat only occasionally – and maintains a healthy lifestyle will be fine.

Gina Sunderland, a registered dietician for CancerCare Manitoba, agreed in an interview with the Manitoban that moderation, mixed with including better options, is the best way to approach the subject.

“What we know can reduce our risk [of colorectal cancer] is including more dietary fibre in our diet,” Sunderland told the Manitoban.

“So whole grains. Make that sandwich on whole wheat bread. Use brown rice. Include the skins on your potatoes for more fibre. Make sure you’re getting a fruit and a vegetable, or fruits and vegetables in your diet every day. We know that is a sure way to help reduce risk.”

It’s important to do your research and make the decision for yourself. The answer is as it’s always been: moderation really is the key.