Cigarettes, asbestos and bacon?

World Health Organization reports evidence linking processed meats to cancer.

Scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed the strength of current evidence to evaluate the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Findings based on the review of scientific literature were released on October 22.

What did the report include?

The group of 22 experts from ten countries classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, or carcinogenic to humans. The committee identified “sufficient evidence in humans that consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” The committee made a less definitive statement for red meat, citing that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans” with a classification of Group 2A.

What else is considered a Group 1 carcinogen and how should this be interpreted? Tobacco, asbestos, and UV radiation are among the list of known human carcinogens. The WHO points out that just because processed meats like bacon, hot dogs and bologna, are classified in the same way as these substances does not mean that they are all equally dangerous. The WHO continues to state that the IARC classification “describes the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”

How are processed meats defined?

The WHO considers processed meat as the following: “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood. Examples of processed meat include hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, and biltong or beef jerky as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.”

What are the implications for diet?

Before one decides to stop eating meat completely, it is important to note that the findings from the WHO report generally support dietary recommendations for cancer prevention that have been known for several decades. Carrie Daniel-MacDougall, PhD, MPH, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center noted during a recent radio interview that the message on dietary recommendations for cancer prevention really has not changed. Diet, obesity and physical activity are widely known factors that may affect cancer risk. Reducing consumption or red and processed meat serves as a good starting place to consider when evaluating healthy weight goals. Federal nutrition guidance endorses regular consumption of colorful vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meat and plant-based protein sources as a way to prevent and reduce diet-related chronic disease. 

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) suggests limiting cooked red meat to 18 ounces or less per week. The AICR also offers substitutes to make for reducing processed meat. For example, consider eggs and oatmeal to replace eggs and bacon, or fresh turkey or hummus on whole grain bread instead of a ham or bologna sandwich. Instead of an eight ounce steak dinner, settle for three ounces with extra vegetables or whole grains. 

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