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WHO Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer, So Should We Stop Eating It Altogether?

Is this the end of bacon, hot dogs and corned beef on rye? (Didriks/Flickr)

Is this the end of bacon, hot dogs and corned beef on rye? (Didriks/Flickr)

Is this the end of bacon, hot dogs and corned beef on rye?

How should consumers react to news from the World Health Organization that these and other processed meats can cause cancer, and that red meat, including beef, pork, veal and lamb, are “probably carcinogenic to humans” too? Should we abstain completely now that the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put processed meat in the same cancer-risk category as tobacco and asbestos?

Here’s the bottom line risk, from the IARC news release: “The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”

Processed meats have previously been inked to a range of illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes and cancer. But even with this big news from the WHO, many nutrition and public health experts said that reducing consumption of such meats is key, not eliminating them altogether.

Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, says there’s no need for everyone to suddenly become vegetarian or vegan. But, he said in an interview, he hopes the WHO announcement will spark real dietary change.

He made three points:

1. The WHO Announcement Is Big 

“I think the WHO announcement is very significant from a public health point of view because processed red meats have already been linked to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic disease, and this provides convincing evidence that consuming processed meats, like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer in particular. Cutting back on red meat and processed meat reduces risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but also reduces the risk of cancer. Improving your diet can actually be beneficial for reducing your cancer risk.”

2. You Don’t Need To Quit

“I’m not a vegetarian. This doesn’t mean everyone should become a vegetarian or vegan. Processed red meat should be consumed as little as possible — once or twice a week should not be a major problem. For unprocessed red meat, consumption should be moderate, but that’s hard to quantify; maybe every other day. We’re not talking about banning hot dogs, sausages or bacon, but we should change our dietary pattern from a meat-based diet to a more plant-based diet. That’s not really a new message. This message will hopefully raise more awareness. Hopefully it will motivate people to change their eating patterns.”

3. Change The Food Environment

“Certainly the risk accumulates as the amount increases, and if you can stay away from it completely that would be good. But occasional consumption of processed red meat isn’t going to create significant health problems … There are so many chemicals and ingredients in processed red meats — preservatives, nitrates, high sodium, saturated fats — it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which chemicals cause cancer. From a public health point of view, it’s not necessary to know which chemicals are precisely responsible for the increased risk. Here the message is similar to tobacco, even though we may not know precisely which chemical cause the cancer, we can take actions to reduce the cancer risk by cutting back … It’s also important for the government to improve the food environment. There’s so much junk food in the food system.” Continue reading