Can red meat and processed meat cause cancer?

Image: Pixabay

[Catie Allwright | Contributing Writer]

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently issued a report outlining research into the carcinogenicity of red meat and processed meat. Or, plainly, can steak and sausages contribute to cancer? There was a bit of a media frenzy on the matter in October, but what has come from it?

First off, let’s establish the definitions of the report. The term ‘red meat’ refers to ‘all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.’ Processed meat, on the other hand, refers to meat that has been transformed through processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation, such as corned beef, sausages, ham and jerky.

Red meat is classified as Group 2A, meaning it is probably carcinogenic to humans. This classification is based on ‘limited evidence […] showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer.’ There is also evidence of links with pancreatic and prostate cancer. Limited evidence means that while there is a positive association, other explanations cannot be ruled out.

Processed meat, however, is classified as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, meaning there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer. In this case, there is ‘sufficient evidence’ that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer. There is also a positive association with stomach cancer, although this is not conclusive. Other Group 1 carcinogens include tobacco, alcohol and asbestos.

The report takes statistics from the Global Burden of Disease Project, who have found that about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to diets high in processed meat. Red meat could be responsible for 50,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide if the reported associations are proved to be causal. This is compared to about one million due to tobacco smoking and 600,000 due to alcohol consumption.

So why is this? WHO have explained that it is predominantly the processing and cooking of meat which produces known or suspected carcinogens. Cooking at high temperatures, such as pan-frying and barbecuing, increases the production of these carcinogenic chemicals.

The report has also found that the more meat consumed, the higher the risk – 50g of processed meat eaten daily can increase the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 per cent, and 100g of red meat daily could increase the risk by about 17 per cent.

Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said to The Guardian:

“Cancer Research UK supports IARC’s decision that there’s strong enough evidence to classify processed meat as a cause of cancer, and red meat as a probable cause of cancer.”

Whilst the report says that eating meat has some ‘known health benefits’, other NGOs such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have been conducting alternative research which suggests otherwise.

A poll by The Telegraph has revealed that of over 36,000 voters (as of 23/11/2015), 54 per cent would cut back on meat to reduce their risk of cancer, and 46 per cent would not. As a nation we seem fairly divided. What do you think? Is everything fine in moderation, or is it better to take preventative steps to protect your health (and the animals)?

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Can red meat and processed meat cause cancer?