Is Eating Processed Meat As Bad As Smoking? - World Health Order

Publish Date
Tuesday, 27 October 2015, 7:34AM

Bacon, ham and sausages rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer, the World Health Organisation has said.

Its report says each 50g of processed meat a day - the equivalent of one sausage, or less than two slices of bacon - increases the chance of developing bowel cancer by 18 per cent.

Global health experts listed processed meat as a cancer-causing substance - the highest of five possible rankings, shared with alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes.


Fresh red meat was ranked on the next level - as a "probable" carcinogen.

The classifications, by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), mean processed meat is officially regarded as "carcinogenic to humans".

Although processed meats have been classed in the highest risk category, alongside smoking, it does not mean that each are an equal danger, experts stressed.

The classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence that a substance causes cancer, rather than the level of risk attached to it.

Dr Kurt Straif, from the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, said: "For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed."

Red meat - under which the IARC includes beef, lamb and pork - was classified as a "probable" carcinogen in its group 2A list that also contains glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.

The lower classification for fresh red meat reflected "limited evidence" that it causes cancer. The IARC found links mainly with bowel cancer, but also observed associations with pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has previously warned of "strong evidence" that consuming a lot of red meat can cause bowel cancer.

In 2009, it recommended eating no more than 2.5oz (70g) processed meat a week - the equivalent of three rashers of bacon - and said children should not have processed meat at all.

Industry tries to discredit report

New Zealand is in the top ten of countires for meat consumption. Before the report's publication the New Zealand meat industry was trying to discredit the findings.

Beef and Lamb New Zealand, which represents farmers and meat processors and retailers, said: ""There is no evidence to show any single food causes cancer,"

The lobby group's spokeswoman Fiona Greig said New Zealanders ate on average 22g of processed meat a day. "The causes of cancer are many and complex with lifestyle factors playing a key role in reducing cancer risk including maintaining a [healthy] body weight, not smoking and avoiding high intakes of alcohol," she said.

"Processed meat contributes nutrients to the diets of Kiwis and eliminating it completely is unnecessary. It can be enjoyed in moderate portions with plenty of vegetables and as part of an active, healthy lifestyle."

The Cancer Society's current advice states that red meats, including beef, lamb and pork, are "a valuable source of a number of different nutrients especially protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12".

"It is recommended that people who eat red meat consume less than 500g a week, with very little, if any, processed meat. It is also recommended that care is taken when preparing and cooking red meat to avoid excessive fat intake and eating charred or burnt meat."

Professor Tim Key, from Cancer Research UK, said the links were backed by substantial evidence. He said the ruling should not mean cutting out all meats. "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.

"Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn't going to do much harm - having a healthy diet is all about moderation," he said.

The new advice from WHO suggests 50g of processed meat is enough to significantly raise bowel cancer risk, by 18 per cent.

A fry-up including two rashers of bacon and two sausages makes up almost three times that amount, at 130g.

Dr Ian Johnson, nutrition researcher and Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Food Research, said: "Meat consumption is probably one of many factors contributing to the high rates of bowel cancer seen in America, Western Europe and Australia, but the mechanism is poorly understood, and the effect is much smaller than, for example, that of cigarette smoking on the risk of lung cancer. It is also worth noting that there is little or no evidence that vegetarians in the UK have a lower risk of bowel cancer than meat-eaters."

Speaking before the report was published, he pointed out that cigarette smoking increases the risk of lung cancer around 20 fold.

- NZ Herald