On the 26th October, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialized agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), published a report about the link between cancer and meat consumption.
The world media reported the results with dramatic newspaper headlines:
“Processed Meats Rank alongside Smoking as Cancer Causes – WHO” (The Guardian, UK)
“Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds” (New York Times, USA)
“Processed Meats do Cause Cancer: WHO” (Peninsula, Qatar)
The media coverage was designed to provoke an emotional response, but it did not differentiate between evidence and risk — creating unnecessary alarm and general confusion for the public. Here, we explain the real implications of the report and present the facts without sensationalism, helping you come to your own conclusions about the role of meat in your diet.
The Story behind the Report.
The report reviewed numerous epidemiological studies on the relationship between cancer and red and processed meat. The IARC went through more than 800 scientific papers to determine if red or processed meat is capable of causing cancer in humans.
What Is Processed Meat?
Processing is any modification done to prolong the shelf-life of a product. Common methods include smoking (with actual smoke or chemical ‘smoke’) or adding artificial preservatives. Bacon, salami and sausages, for example, are classified as processed meats.
Sodium nitrite is often used as both a meat preservative and colorant because it keeps meat looking reddish-pink and fresh, whereas after cutting and exposing to the air meat naturally turns silver-grey or brown in color.
The sodium nitrite can react with the protein in the meat during cooking or processing, creating toxic compounds called nitrosamines. These compounds are carcinogenic and have been linked to stomach and bowel cancers.
The added chemicals create the increased risk of cancer, not the meat itself.
In addition, the way you cook the meat affects the likelihood of unwanted chemicals being produced. For example pan-frying or char-grilling meat (preparation methods that create high surface temperatures) increases the chances of carcinogenic compounds being produced.
About Evidence and Risk
There are five different categories into which potential carcinogenic agents are classified:
• Group 1: Definitely carcinogenic to humans.
• Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans.
• Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans.
• Group 3: Unknown or non-classifiable carcinogenicity to humans.
• Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans.
However, the grouping indicates risk, not likelihood. For example tobacco and air pollution are both classified in Group 1 — this does NOT mean that tobacco and air pollution are equally dangerous, but that there is sufficient evidence to show that both are ABLE to cause cancer.
Processed meat has been classified in Group 1, meaning there is a definite link with cancer. Diets where processed meats are eaten regularly and in large quantities can increase your risk of certain types of cancer, specifically related to the digestive system. Notably, for processed meat, evidence relates to colorectal cancer and also, to a lesser extent, stomach cancer. For red meat, associations were mainly drawn for colorectal cancer and there were also weaker links for pancreatic and prostate cancer.
However, red meat has been put into Group 2A, probably carcinogenic, meaning the link is not established or clear. There are many other potential causes for this association, such as the use of cooking oils, animal-feed supplements, lack of vegetables in the diet, not enough physical activity and much more. There is no definite link between red meat and cancer that does not exclude other contributing factors — if there was a clear link it would be in Group 1, but it is not.
Putting the Results into Perspective
There is an important difference between evidence and risk. Things get a lot clearer when comparing absolute numbers.
• 34,000 cancer deaths per year from diets high in processed meat
• 220,000 cancer deaths per year from air pollution
• 440,000 cancer deaths due to a lack of fruit and vegetables in the diet
• 1,600,000 cancer deaths per year from tobacco and cigarette smoking
When we compare these figures it is clear that while there are risks associated with processed meat, they are minimal when compared to other lifestyle choices such as smoking. Even breathing in city air is more dangerous than processed meat. While simply increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in your diet makes a much more significant difference to your health than cutting out processed meat.
Nutritional Content of Meat
Red meat actually contains essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, specifically:
• Iron — essential for oxygenating your blood
• Zinc — needed for proper immune function
• Phosphorus — required to make bones strong
• B-vitamins — important for cellular metabolism and growth
• Lipoic acid — a powerful antioxidant
Some Simple Guidelines
If you currently enjoy meat in your diet and would like to ensure you are doing the best for your body, follow these simple tips:
• Keep it lean — trim off visible fat
• Cook it cool — avoid charring the meat
• Eat it fresh — choose fresh cuts over highly processed meats
• Veg on the side — increase your vegetable intake
• Moderation is key — don’t overindulge