The headlines are full of scary stories on nutrition again ‘Process meats do cause cancer’, Processed meat ranks along side smoking as a cancer cause’, ‘Hot dogs, bacon, processed meat linked to cancer’. If you just read the headlines then you might be led to believe that you should never eat meat again or you will get cancer…

This is why people think nutritional messages are always changing, when generally they are not. If you delve deeper into the story you will realise it is ok to have processed meats once in a while.

The report (October 2015) has come from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Twenty two experts from 10 countries have come to the conclusion that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans (as there is sufficient evidence to link process meat with colorectal cancer) and that red meat is probably carncinogenic to humans. This sounds like pretty scary stuff…

It’s not new though, there has been evidence building up over time that too much red meat is linked to bowel cancer and the current recommendations in the UK are to cut down on the amount of red and processed meat that you eat. The department of health recommends if you are eating more than 90g of red meat and processed meat a day, then to cut down to 70g.

What is classed as processed meat?

This is meat that has been cured, salted, fermented, smoked or another process to enhance the flavour or improve its shelve life. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but could be poultry or offal. Examples include hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, bilton / beef jurkey as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.

What is classed as red meat?

Beef, pork, veal, lamb, mutton, horse and goat, including fresh minced versions.

How much is carcinogenic according to the IARC report?

They concluded each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

To put this in perspective a 50g portion equates to:

  • 2 rashes of bacon per day
  • 1 sausage
  • 2 frankfurters
  • 2 slices of tinned corned beef
  • 1 plateful of beef jerky / biloton
  • 2 slices of thick ham
  • 4 slices of wafer thin ham

Bear in mind this is the risk if you are eating these foods daily. Ham in your sandwiches once a week or a bacon sandwich at the weekend and the risk will be low. Combine these foods with cancer protecting foods – plenty of fruits and vegetables and fibre. E.g. bacon butty with mushrooms and tomatoes on wholegrain bread, ham sandwich with lots of salad.

The evidence for red meat and cancer is not as strong; the limited evidence is linked to bowel cancer, but also prostate and pancreatic. They report if the link was found then they would suggest the risk would increase by 17% for every 100g of red meat eaten daily. 100g of red meat equates to:

  • 2-3 slices of roast beef
  • 1 large lamb chop
  • 1 pork chop

Cancer Research UK have produced some nice infographics to show how to cut down on the amount of red and processed meat in your diet:

Cancer research How much meat do you eat a day

Benefits of red meat

There are good things about red meat too. It is a good source of protein and a very good source of iron and vitamin B12 as well as other minerals. Pre menopausal women have a high requirement for iron due to menstruation so red meat is a good way to get a rich source of iron in the diet.

Is the risk of getting cancer from eating meat as high as smoking?

No. The risk of getting cancer from smoking is much higher than eating red meat as this great infographic from Cancer Research UK explains.

cancer research tobacco vs meat what are the risks

In conclusion…

If you eat a lot of red and processed meat every day then you might want to think about cutting down. If you want to eat red meat then eat a variety of protein sources – white meat, fish, beans, pulses, soya, cheese, eggs. This way red and processed meat will only crop up in your diet a couple of times a week. This latest report does not mean you have to cut red meat out of your diet altogether.