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August 7, 2014 | 3 minute read

FAQ: Processed Meat and Cancer

Bacon, ham, cold cuts – we get more questions about processed meats than any other type of food. It’s not surprising since the headlines can change with every new study. So we put together some answers to your most-asked questions.

What Are Processed Meats?

AICR/WCRF’s expert report and its updates define processed meat as “meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.” Ham, bacon, sausages, hot dogs and yes, deli meats, are all considered processed meat.

How Does Processed Meat Affect Cancer Risk?

The latest analysis of the global research found that eating even small amounts of cold cuts or other processed meats on a regular basis increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

The report by AICR/WCRF also found that eating high amounts of red meat – over 18 ounces a week – linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer.

In addition to its link to colorectal cancer, processed meat may also increase risk of heart disease.

How Much Processed Meat Is Safe to Eat?

Processed Meats

  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Deli meats
  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Pepperoni
  • Salami
  • Corned beef

Research suggests that regularly eating even small amounts of cold cuts, bacon, sausage and hot dogs increase colorectal cancer risk, which is why AICR recommends avoiding these foods, except for special occasions.

The risk continues to rise as processed meat consumption increases. Studies show that compared to eating no processed meat, eating 3.5 ounces every day – a large hot dog – increases colorectal cancer risk by 36%.

Why Does Processed Meat Increase Cancer Risk?

It’s not yet clear exactly why processed meats increase risk for colorectal cancer. Researchers are currently exploring a few possible mechanisms, including:

  1. Nitrates/Nitrites: These are added to processed meats to preserve color and prevent spoilage. In lab studies, these compounds form cancer-causing compounds, carcinogens.
  2. Smoking: Smoked meats contain PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), substances that are formed at high-heat and considered carcinogenic.
  3. Cooking at high temperatures: Meats cooked at high temperatures can also contain PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can damage DNA.
  4. Heme iron: The heme iron found in red meat may damage the lining of the colon.

What about nitrate/nitrite-free turkey or other deli meats?

These products are relatively new. At this point, more research is needed to distinguish between nitrate/nitrite-free processed meats and the typical hot dogs and luncheon meats with added nitrates and nitrites. Sausage and other processed meat made from turkey or chicken is still smoked, salted, or cured so it is also included among the processed meats to carefully limit.

How to Reduce Overall Risk

When it comes to nutrition and cancer, it’s the healthy choices you make every day that matter most. The occasional hot dog at a baseball game or ham on a holiday is unlikely to increase cancer risk. To decrease your overall risk, try some of these simple swaps:

  • Replace packaged deli meats with fresh chicken or fish
  • Instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy vegetarian sausages.
  • Replace sausage in chili and sauces with beans like kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.
  • Try out different sources of protein like eggs, cottage cheese and hummus.
  • Use herbs and spices like garlic, fennel seed and chili flakes to add flavor to your dish.

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