October 20, 2019

meat lovers – something for you to digest…

In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) released the blockbuster 511 page research summary on red and processed meat consumption; assessing the cancer causing potential to people. The Lancet Oncology publication looked at over 800 studies, including large cohorts in many countries from several continents, with diverse ethnicities and diets. We’ve summarised the key findings for you:

Red meat (definition)

Classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the WHO as unprocessed muscle meat from mammals (e.g. beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat) including minced or frozen variants.

Processed meat (definition)

Meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation or smoking. Examples include hot dogs, bacon, ham, pastrami, salami, sausage, cold cuts, canned meat and dried meat (this goes for white meat variants of this too such as chicken and turkey).

Red meat – probably carcinogenic 

The WHO conclude that there is evidence for the carcinogenicity (cancer causing potential) of eating red meat. It goes on to state that there are positive associations between red meat consumption and the risk of developing cancers of the prostate, colon/ rectum and pancreas. This link is given a status by IARC of “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

Processed meat – proven carcinogen 

With regards to processed meat the WHO have concluded that there is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of this food category. They state that consumption of processed meat “causes colorectal cancer”, and that associations have been observed with stomach cancer too. The certainty to which the WHO classify processed meat as carcinogenic is equivalent to tobacco smoking, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic.

3D Image of Bowel Cancer 

How does red and processed meat cause cancer?

There are various biological theories for this causal link.

  1. Cooking at high temperatures. When processed meat is cooked at high temperatures (fried, roasted, grilled, barbecued) they produce compounds which are recognised as cancer causing in humans.
  2. Nitrates and nitrites. These additives are often contained in processed meats as they are used as preservatives. In the body these can turn into nitrosamines that can damage DNA.
  3. Haemoglobin breakdown. When haemoglobin in red meat is broken down into haem it forms n-nitroso compounds in the gut, similar to process in point 2 above.

Can I still eat red and processed Meats Safely?

This research by WHO suggests that long term and regular consumption of these types of meats is probably not the best way to optimise your chances of developing bowel cancer. Red and processed meat is possibly ok in strict moderation, and quite simply the less you eat the lower your risks will be. The UK government recommend cutting down to 70g per day or less.

Benefits of red meat

Red meats are known to provide nutritional value in the form of protein, iron, B vitamins and zinc. Note that the benefits from meat are also possible from plant based foods as well.

Alternatives to red and processed meats 

Eating more vegetables, beans and pulses is one way to begin to cut down on the volume of the meats discussed in this article. In addition switching to chicken, turkey and fish are safer alternatives.

Authors Thoughts – Dr Paul Baker 

Much of the population seem confused and unaware of these links between processed / red meat and cancer. If cigarette packets have health warning labels, then should this courtesy not extend to processed meats? People should have the choice to eat what they choose, but without knowing the associated risks they are unable to make their own informed conscious decisions for themselves and their families. In California the legal ruling ‘Proposition 65‘ (P65) means that businesses have to inform customers about potential exposure to toxic chemicals (includes foods) in the products they purchase, allowing them to make more balanced choices.

The UK Government / NHS advice, in our opinion, does not go far enough in its recommendations to cut down on our intake of (particularly) processed meat.


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