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Processed Meat Causes Cancer

Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement that processed meats, such as bacon, ham and hot dogs, have been shown to cause cancer, and that other red meats may also increase the risks.
The news has come as a surprise to many people, and the meat industry has been quick to try to minimise the impact of the statement, claiming that the findings of the report are misleading, and that according to some experts, “anything can cause cancer”. However, the research is based on a huge number of studies, which have been analysed to ensure their quality, and the findings are very clear. While it is understandable that the processed meat industry would seek to ensure continued profits into the future, it is unethical to mislead people about the known risks to their health of consuming these products.

It has been known for at least 10 years that processed meat can increase the risk of cancer. The current research, conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), simply confirms what was already known to be the case. The researchers reviewed more than 800 studies, and concluded there was a definite correlation between the consumption of processed meat and several types of cancer, particularly bowel cancer, and a possible association between consumption of red meat and increased cancer risk.

Processed meat is meat that has been modified, either to extend its shelf life or to change its taste. The main methods of processing are smoking, curing, or adding preservatives such as nitrites. Simply putting meat through a mincer, or adding sauces or seasonings does not mean the resulting meat is “processed”. Processed meat includes bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, and ham. The report found that 50g of processed meat a day (equivalent to less than two slices of bacon) increases the chances of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. Previous research has also found a correlation between diets high in processed meat and deaths from cardiovascular and other diseases. It is therefore advisable to avoid processed meat altogether, or to keep it to a very occasional treat.

The IARC also found a possible link between consumption of red meat and cancer, and stated that consuming 100g (under 1/4lb) of red meat per day may increase cancer risk by up to 17%. However, unlike processed meats, the evidence linking red meat to cancer was limited, and the WHO also stressed that lean red meat also has health benefits, as it is a valuable source of protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.

Bowel cancer, which is also called colon cancer or colorectal cancer, is the second most common cause of death from cancer in Ireland, and over 2,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year. In over half of these cases the disease is already at an advanced stage, and 900 people die from the disease annually. Ireland has the third highest incidence of bowel cancer in the world, which may, at least in part, be a reflection of our fondness for processed meat products.

If you are concerned about reducing your risk of cancer, particularly if you have a family history of the disease, it would be advisable to avoid processed meat products altogether, or to keep them to a very occasional treat. It is also advisable to reduce consumption of red meat by reducing your portion sizes, and limiting consumption of red meat to a couple of times a week. Try to eat plenty of fish and some poultry instead, and include some vegetarian meals in your diet as well. Beans and pulses such as lentils and chickpeas provide an alternative source of protein in meat free dishes such as soups and curries.

It is also important to eat plenty of fresh organic fruit and vegetables, particularly those that are coloured (such as carrots, sweet potatoes, greens, cherries and other berries).  These contain nutrients known as antioxidants, which are deficient in most cancer patients.  Above all, stop smoking and get plenty of exercise, as smoking and obesity are also major risk factors for all types of cancer