World Health Organization Report Links Bacon, Hot Dogs, Other Processed Meats To Cancer

You might want to put down your daily hot dog snack while you read this one: a new report from the World Health Organization says bacon, ham and other sausages are a major cause of cancer, putting processed meats in the same category as carcinogens like tobacco, arsenic, asbestos and alcohol.

There’s enough evidence to rank processed meats as group 1 carcinogens because of their link with bowel cancer, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said in a report published Monday in Lancet Oncology. Researchers concluded that each 1.8-ounce portion of processed meat eaten daily increased 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,” said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC monographs program. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

Red meat landed in group 2A — “probably carcinogenic to humans” — and is linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer, the IARC found.

The report is the result of work by 22 scientists who were invited to the IARC to investigate the connection between more than 16 types of cancer and eating red meat and processed meats. In early October, the scientific panel studied more than 800 epidemiological studies from the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere, involving multiple ethnicities and global diets.

The report likely isn’t a big shock to the cancer research community: recently, other studies and health policy groups have linked meat consumption with cancer, but not in such an explicit manner. For example, the American Cancer Society’s position as of this morning:

“Because of a wealth of studies linking colon cancer to diets high in red meats (beef, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (hot dogs, bologna, etc.), the Society encourages people to eat more vegetables and fish and less red and processed meats,” the group says.

The position is also in line with other health agencies like the World Cancer Research Fund, which has said there is convincing evidence that processed meats cause bowel cancer, and has advised people to eat more vegetables and less ham, bacon and salami, as well as red meat.

But while the IARC’s declaration will be welcomed by cancer researchers, it isn’t being greeting so warmly by the processed meat industry and its scientists. Cigarettes and meat are not the same, they say.

“What we do know is that avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer,” Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and emeritus professor of neurobiology at Cardiff University told The Guardian. “The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.”

The beef industry has been working on its rebuttal for months, according to The Washington Post:

“We simply don’t think the evidence support any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer,” Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told Post.

The North American Meat Institute is casting a side-eye at the report as well, saying that defining red meat as a cancer hazard goes against common sense.

“Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by the IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard,’ ” Betsy Booren, the institute’s vice-president of scientific affairs told The Guardian. “Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by the IARC not to cause cancer.”

The big question here you’re asking yourself is, of course: Do I need to stop eating hot dogs and bacon? Not completely, but you shouldn’t go overboard, either, Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at the University of Oxford told The Guardian.

“Cancer Research UK supports IARC’s decision that there’s strong enough evidence to classify processed meat as a cause of cancer, and red meat as a probable cause of cancer.” However, he adds, “this decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.”

Physician & NRDC Senior Health Officer David Wallinga weighed in on the decision’s significance, noting that while Big Meat isn’t too happy right now, that doesn’t represent the entire industry. He points to moves from Panera, Chipotle and Subway to source meat free from antibiotics as examples of businesses turning away from conventionally-raised meat. Eating more sustainably-produced meat is not only healthier for animals but for humans too, Wallinga says.

“And because meat products can be some of the most resource intensive to produce, eating less — and more sustainably raised — meat can reduce the impact of the conventional meat industry on our land, water, air and climate,” he says. “Bottom line: Eat less and better meat. Better for you, better for the planet.”

Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat [Lancet Oncology]
Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO [The Guardian]

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