Is Processed Meat a Carcinogen?

Liz Cabrera, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSC

In October 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed meats cause cancer. The WHO’s International agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meat as a carcinogen–something that causes cancer.  It also classified red meat as a probable carcinogen-something that probably causes cancer.

Consumers reading these headlines may be reacting in one of two ways:

  1. I will never eat processed meats or red meat again!
  2. I do not care how bad it is for you, I enjoy my Gumbo and Jambalaya with lots of smoked sausage.

It is always important to read beyond the headlines to get all the facts and make an informed choice that may impact your health.

processed-meat-colon-cancer

What You Need to Know:

Processed Meats are meats that have been transformed by smoking, curing, salting or otherwise preserving them in some way to add flavor. Examples of processed meats include ham, hot dogs, sausage, salami and other deli/luncheon meats. Red meat refers to beef, lamb, veal and pork.

Researchers reviewed more than 800 studies to reach the conclusion that no amount of processed meat is safe to eat. Compared to eating no processed meat, eating 3.5 ounces everyday (a large hotdog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 36%.  Theories as to why processed foods are deemed carcinogenic include cooking at high temperatures or the smoking process of meats release substances known as PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) which are considered carcinogenic. Nitrates and Nitrites added to processed meats   for color and to prevent spoilage may also play a role in increasing cancer risk by forming cancer causing compounds.

Nitrate/Nitrite free turkey and other deli meats are relatively new and more long term studies are needed. It is important to keep in mind that these meats are still smoked, salted or cured.

Studies revealed that a person eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week (cooked portion the size of a deck of cards everyday) had a higher colorectal cancer risk than someone who does not eat red meat.

Any further increased red meat intake causes even more   increased colorectal cancer risk.  Red meat is a good source of protein, B vitamins and iron. AICR (American Institute of Cancer Research) suggests that eating less than 18 ounces of red meat weekly is not associated with a significant increased risk. Research indicates that those who eat less red meat tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and reap the benefits of phytonutrients and their cancer protective properties.

Take Home Message

Avoid processed meats:

  • Replace bacon and sausage at breakfast with low fat/fat free dairy products like yogurt or cottage cheese
  • At lunch , instead of ham sandwich , try a tuna salad or peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread
  • Make healthy choices most of the time and enjoy a piece of ham at a holiday gathering or a hotdog at a ball game

Limit Red Meat to less than 18 ounces/week

  • Instead of planning a dinner around the “meat” , choose whole grains and veggies first and then think of any red meat as a “side” dish
  • Choose other sources of protein more often such as fish, poultry and beans

According to the AICR, achieving and keeping a healthy weight, being active, and choosing a plant based diet can decrease the risk of the most common US cancers. Although family history and genetics are out of your control, you alone have the power to make choices as to what you eat.

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Cabrera, LizLiz Cabrera, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSC, is the Lead Clinical Dietician for Touro Infirmary with over 25 years experience. Liz has advanced education and extensive experience in nutrition for a broad range of health conditions for which she provides nutrition support. Liz provides comprehensive nutrition care for inpatient and outpatient departments at Touro. In addition, Liz leads monthly healthy lifestyles community seminars and a nutrition after cancer cooking class.

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