On October 26, 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has “classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.”
The team who came to the conclusion included 22 experts from 10 countries who evaluated more than 800 different studies on cancer in humans. Their findings further concluded that “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.1”
The red meat referred to in the report included “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat” and their preference to processed meat refers to “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.1” Some examples include hot dogs, ham, sausages, bacon, salami, corned beef, and beef jerky, plus canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.
According to the WHO, red meat is a risk because it contains certain components like haem iron. The processing of this meat further enhances the risk because it produces carcinogenic chemicals, such as N-nitroso compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Simply cooking red meat or processed meat also produces heterocyclic aromatic amines and other chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Of course, there is a lot of industry backlash as a result of this statement, but the WHO holds true to their statement knowing that their findings are conclusive. It’s only natural that when an industry feels threatened, they will point a finger and try to come out looking good, but it needs to be stated that media claims that processed red meat is as bad as smoking or asbestos are incorrect. These claims are misunderstandings of how the Group 1 listing of “carcinogenic to humans” works.
The Group 1 listing does not assess the amount of risk – only the established risk. Just because it is in the same category as other Group 1 items like asbestos, arsenic, smoking, alcoholic beverages and outdoor air pollution does not mean that all of these things carry the same amount of risk, just that the risk is there. For example, it is estimated that the risk of developing colorectal cancer for each 50 grams of processed meat one eats is 18%, while the risk of developing lung cancer due to smoking is increased by 2500%.
At this time, the recommendation is to limit the amount of processed red meat you eat. You don’t have to completely avoid it, jut know that the more you eat, the more risk you are undertaking. Simply decrease your portions and the frequency with which you eat it.