In a long anticipated statement, the World Health Organization announced today that processed meats, such as bacon, sausages, and hot dogs, are carcinogens. Alongside cigarettes, they are now considered a major cause of cancer. The WHO also announced that red meats, such as beef, pork, veal, and lamb, are “probably carcinogenic” as well, as they have been linked to increased risk of pancreatic and prostate cancers. The science behind this claim comes from research conducted by 22 experts from 10 different countries.
The scientists met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency within the WHO, in Lyon, France. There, they reviewed evidence linking the intake of red and processed meats to cancer. The group concluded that regular consumption increases the risk of colorectal cancer. According to their findings, each 1.8-ounce portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. A summary of their scientific review can be seen in an article published by the Lancet. The entire review will be published in volume 114 of the IARC Monographs.
Not only has the IARC deemed processed meats carcinogenic, they have also placed them in the same category of cancer risk as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic, and tobacco. While researchers announced that cancer risk increases with the amount of meat consumed, they are also looking for a link between cooking method and cancer risk. There seems to be a link between high-temperature cooking methods and the production of more carcinogenic compounds, but there is not enough data to reach a definitive conclusion.
The WHO’s announcement has already triggered fury among members of the meat industry and the scientists the industry funds. Many reject the link between processed meats and cigarettes, while others claim there is simply no evidence to show avoiding red meat is protective against cancer. “The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight, and avoidance of high alcohol intakes,” Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Board, told The Guardian.
In contrast, public health advocates and experts in the field are welcoming the statement. Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian that Cancer Research UK supports IARC’s findings. He does say, however, that this decision doesn’t mean red meat is completely off the table. “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 having a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.” The WHO’s announcement is the first official declaration of what a multiplicity of studies has alluded to for years: A healthy diet should limit red and processed meats, and increase consumption of lean and vegetable proteins.
The accompanying slideshow is provided by fellow Daily Meal editorial staff Julie Ruggirello.