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World Health Organisation identifies processed meat a carcinogen

Following evaluation of the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the cancer agency of the World Health Organization – has placed processed meats in the same category as smoking, asbestos and plutonium.

After reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and “strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.


Processed meat, however, was classified as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1), based on “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”. Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. 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.

The consumption of meat varies greatly between countries, with from a few per cent up to 100% of people eating red meat, depending on the country, and somewhat lower proportions eating processed meat. The experts concluded that each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” says Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The IARC Working Group considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets. The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.

”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

justin davies bwJustin Davies, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge and Clinical Adviser at Check4Cancer, commented: “These are important findings which can help people to better manage their risk of colorectal cancer – but they do need some qualification to put them into perspective. Whilst the consumption of processed meat is now in the same Group 1 category as smoking, this is a broad category, and there is no suggestion that its effects are on a par with tobacco smoke. Alcohol is also classed as a Group 1 carcinogen, and as with alcohol the increase in cancer risk from consumption of processed meat is directly related to intake. The key is moderation – to cut down processed meat if intake is high, but not necessarily cut out.”

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