After assessing more than 800 studies, the WHO broke the news that processed meat is being classified a ‘definite’ cause of cancer, and red meat being a ‘probable’ cause.
The headlines that resulted made many people wonder if red and processed meats should be avoided. The week after the news broke, supermarket sales of pre-packaged sausages fell 15.7 per cent and pre-packed bacon by 17 per cent, compared to 2014.
But, although this latest announcement is significant, the link between certain types of meat and some forms of cancer – particularly bowel cancer – isn’t new: the evidence has been growing for decades, and is supported by thorough research. In fact, bowel cancer is more common among people who eat the most red and processed meat.
Cancer Research UK has looked at what this announcement means and how red and processed meat affect your risk developing cancer.
What is red and processed meat?
Red meat is any meat that’s a dark red colour before it’s cooked – such as beef and lamb. Pork is also classed as a red meat.
Processed meat is meat that’s been cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way (such as bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami, and pepperoni). However, this doesn’t include fresh burgers or mince – putting meat through a mincer doesn’t mean it becomes ‘processed’ unless it is modified further.
Both of these types of meat are distinct from white meats (such as fresh chicken or turkey) and fish, neither of which appear to increase your risk of cancer.
How much meat?
But what is a ‘sensible level’ of red and processed meat? Again, we’re venturing into rather uncertain territory.
EPIC – the big, Europe-wide study on diet and cancer that Cancer Research UK is helping to fund – has found that bowel cancer rates were 30 per cent higher among people who ate two daily 80g portions of these meats, compared to the rate in people who ate just 20g a day.
And a French team found that every daily 80g portion of processed meat increased bowel cancer risk by two thirds.
So there are some ball-park figures. But it’s important to remember that these are studies that look at overall risks in large numbers of people, not specific risks in individuals.
Given that we all carry different genes, our individual, personal risk of bowel cancer is currently impossible to work out.