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October 23, 2015 | 3 minute read

Red and Processed Meats and Cancer Risk

On Monday the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) will release their evaluation of the cancer risk associated with red and processed meat. The findings, leaked to the press, will reportedly support AICR’s analysis of the research on this issue and our recommendation to limit red med meat and avoid processed meat.

Updated Statement: Diet–Cancer Experts Welcome WHO Report on Meat and Cancer

Here at AICR we haven’t had a chance to read the full IARC report yet. When we do, we’ll update this blog post with our reaction.43846009_s

In the meantime, here is what we know for certain:

  1. Research shows a clear and convincing link between diets high in red meat and risk for colorectal cancer.
  2. Research shows a clear and convincing link between even small amounts of hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats to colorectal cancer.

The IARC report may be new, but the evidence showing a link between red meats and colorectal cancer is not news. For years we have been recommending that Americans reduce the amount of red meat (beef, pork, lamb) in their diets and avoid processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and cold cuts. This advice grows out of our report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective and our recent report on colorectal cancer, This report, part of the Continuous Update Project, analyzed the global scientific research into the link between diet, physical activity, weight and cancer.

There are several potential reasons that diets high in red and processed meat may be a cause colorectal cancer. Red meat contains a compound that promotes the formation of potentially carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. In addition, when red meat is cooked at high temperatures it leads to the formation of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In lab studies, these compounds cause changes in the DNA that may lead to cancer.

Many processed red meats also contain nitrites and nitrates added as preservatives, which also can form potentially carcinogenic compounds .

  1. The evidence evaluated by AICR suggests that a modest amount of red meat in the diet does not raise colorectal cancer risk.

Our analysis found that eating more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week increases the risk of colorectal cancer. However, even eating small amounts of processed meat regularly increases risk. This is why AICR recommends limiting red meat, but avoiding processed meat.

  1. The meat industry will attempt to attack the science.

Representatives of the American Meat Institute, the US Beef Check-Off, and the US Pork Producers sat in as observers on the new IARC report and they have consistently disputed our recommendations. We’re interested to see what they will say about IARC’s findings.

Expect an updated statement on Monday. In the meantime, we look forward to welcoming yet another rigorous examination of the evidence that adds to the wealth of data showing that diets high in red and processed meat pose a clear and considerable health risk for the public.

35 comments on “Red and Processed Meats and Cancer Risk

  1. Dean on

    I think it would mores of be the poisonous nitrates they process the foods with instead of the meat itself . Wonder if they tested fresh red meat? How about organic range feed meat with no antibiotics or stuff given to animals? Will be I stressed to see where they got thier samples

  2. Mel on

    We like to eat sandwiches for lunches because it is convenient for work. What are good substitutes for cold cuts? Are there any? Something that is not as processed. Thank you!

    • Lindsay on

      Since red meats include ham, beef, hot dogs, roast beef etc., you can always do sandwiches with sliced turkey or chicken, which aren’t red meats! When I make sandwiches, I now only use turkey or chicken. There is always the salad option as well; leafy greens, veggies, cut up a boiled egg, feta or cottage cheese, seeds, cranberries, you can really make a great salad and add some diced turkey to that too!
      Also-I use ground turkey now instead of ground beef for meals such as mexican meals, stuffed peppers etc.
      Good luck!

    • Ms on

      your in luck! there are so many substitutes for cold processed meat products for sandwiches 🙂 try loading up on roasted vegetables instead,garden greens,tabouli, marinated tofu or tempeh,sauerkraut, tinned salmon or tuna,make sweet potato and lentil patties the night before and take them into work, add feta,labna, or ricotta and sauces such as hommus and tahnini to increase flavor instead of using processed meats and sodium 🙂

    • Alice RD on

      Hi Taryn,
      Our recommendations are for meats only, so processed vegan products such as soy chorizo, don’t fall in this category. Tofu/ soy is a great substitute for meat.

  3. Natalie Hyland on

    All processed foods are generally unhealthy. The best thing to do is to go back to eating food in its most natural form. By the way, my grandfather ate bacon and sausages almost every day and he died of bowel cancer at 72.

  4. Anthony on

    I find this interesting. I have a clear idea of what “red meat” is, but I am less clear on what “processed meat” is. I understand that bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts are included, but I would like something more like a definition of the term, so that I can tell whether or not something is a “processed meat”. What about a can of chunk light tuna in water, for example? Is it “processed” because it comes in a can? Does it therefore carry the increased risk?

  5. Jessie Moe on

    What if we choose the meats that have no preservatives and Nitrites and are grass fed? I think this would be a healthy alternative, but again to limit these of course and eat in moderation. Its not good to eat them everyday, but there are other health benefits of eating meats as well.

    • Sam M on

      There definitely are a lot of health benefits to eating meat (including Iron and Vitamin B12) and I totally agree with you, PROCESSING PROCESSING PROCESSING is the problem. No food in its natural and organic form is bad. But we HUMANS make it bad by processing it using all sort of toxic chemicals.

    • K R on

      Iron and B12 aren’t health benefits, they’re nutrients, which can be gotten from foods that don’t cause cancer. In fact the type of iron in meat is one of the reasons why it’s carcinogenic.

  6. dave on

    Tofu and Soy has been proven to cause cancer over and over. The largest company in the world that sells soy is Monsanto. Coincidentally the head lawyer from Monsanto is now running the FDA, and no one is saying that SOY causes cancer. If you do not believe me google “head of Monsanto and FDA correlation”.
    Also this article does not talk about Grass fed organic meat. Why not? Because its a good alternative and it would help people?

    • Anatole on

      Sorry, Dave. You are tragically misinformed. Soy and tofu are anticancer foods which act by many phytochemicals but most notably, genistein which has very powerful anticancer properties especially against breast and prostate cancer. Japan, which has the highest HUMAN soy consumption in the world, has less than half the rates of breast and colon cancer of Americans. Of course they eat whole soy products such as the beans or tofu and not highly processed faux meats like we do. Also Monsanto sells genetically modified soy BEANS most of which are used to grow soy in the US which is then mostly fed to factory animals. I agree with you about their aggressive pushing of GMO products to American farmers but they aren’t pushing a soy conspiracy to drive up human consumption. Grass fed beef, while undoubtedly healthier than factory fed beef, is still a significant cause of cancer when we eat too much of it. Get the facts straight, from someone fighting cancer today.

    • Karen on

      This would be laughable if some people didn’t believe it. No, soy and tofu have not been proven to cause cancer over and over again,or even once. I’m guessing you follow a Paleo diet?

    • Alice RD on

      Hi Terry,
      If the bacon is truly fresh – fresh pork belly, or a fresh side of pork – with NO curing, salting or additives (even “natural” ones), then it would not be considered processed. The way that processed meat increases risk for cancer does not seem to be related to the animals’ diet nor to antibiotic use.
      Thanks for your question.


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