Recent news published by Reuters, reported that the sales of pre-packed sausages and bacon has fallen sharply at Britain’s top grocers, with a loss in sales of ~3 million pounds. This may suggest (although it’s still early days), that the recent WHO (World Health Organisation) report which concluded processed meat causes cancer, has already been effective in altering people’s shopping choice’s when considering to buy processed meat.
WHO Report Summary
The France-based international Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the WHO, reviewed evidence from more than 800 studies and concluded that processed meat was a ‘definite’ cause of cancer and red meat was a ‘probable’ cause. Furthermore, an analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat, if eaten daily, increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%. In relation to red meat, risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17% for every 100 gram portion of red meat if eaten daily.
What counts as processed meat & red meat?
- Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying or canning. This includes:
- Sausages, hot dogs, salami & pastrami.
- Bacon, ham.
- Salted and cured meat, corned beef.
- Smoked meat.
- Dried meat, beef jerky.
- Canned meat.
- But not fresh burgers or mince. This is because both items have been described to have undergone mechanical processing like slicing & cutting. Thus, these items are considered unprocessed.
- Red meat includes meat from cows, pigs, sheep, horses, goats and bison.
Why are processed meats so harmful?
- Not only are processed meats high in fat, but they also contain harmful cancer-causing substances called N-nitroso compound for e.g. nitrosamines; formed from nitrite (sodium nitrite) that is added to processed meat products. Studies have shown that nitrosamines may play a major role in the formation of cancer, in particular bowel cancer¹ ² ³.
- Processed meats are also high in salt and studies have implicated that diets high in salt may increase the risk of stomach cancer⁴ ⁵.
Recommendations & alternatives
- World Cancer Research Fund advise that people eat no more than 500g of red meat per week (around 70g a day) and avoid processed meats⁶.
- Use less meat & bulk meat items with ingredients such as lentils, beans, pulses, vegetables, tofu and quinoa.
- Choose lean meats or fish; there’s no strong evidence linking fresh white meats such as chicken, turkey, or fresh fish to any types of cancer.
- There is strong evidence to suggest that a diet consisting of inadvisable amounts of processed meat and red meat could increase your risk of cancer.
- However, you don’t have to completely eradicate them from your diet, but I would strongly suggest that you stick to the recommendations and in particular, try to have processed meats only now and again.
- It is also important to note that red meat is still a good source of protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12, which is only found naturally in foods from animals, such as meat and milk.
- Look on the bright side: By not over-indulging on meat, not only will you be reducing your risk of chronic diseases and saving money (as good quality meat is expensive!), but you will also be reducing your carbon footprint.