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Why you can still enjoy your meat

According to the WHO meat causes cancer. Does this mean that we must all become vegetarians? A look behind the headlines.   2015-11-08

On 26 October 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that processed meat is 'carcinogenic to humans' and that for every 50 grams of processed meat we eat, we increase our risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. A possible link to stomach and pancreatic cancer was also identified but this was less clear.

Processed meat includes well-loved products such as hot dogs, bacon, sausages, hamburgers, tinned meats, salami and any meat product that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or treated in any way to improve flavour or to prolong shelf life. Red meat was classified as being 'Probably carcinogenic to humans'. This includes all types of fresh or frozen but not processed meats including, beef, veal, pork, lamb and mutton.

On evaluating the possible cancer causing effects of a product, IARC places them in one of the following groups:

  • Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3: Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans
  • Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans

Other Group 1 products include smoking, arsenic and asbestos. Well known killers.

Back in June 2012 when IARC announced that diesel fumes were carcinogenic to humans (just as processed meat is now), Professor David Phillips, a Cancer Research UK-funded carcinogen expert from King’s College London explained to Cancer Research UK that IARC doesn't tell us "how potent" a product is in causing cancer, what IARC does is tell us whether a product does cause cancer.

So keeping this in mind, if sausages and bacon cause cancer the same as smoking and arsenic do, maybe we should give serious consideration to becoming vegetarians?

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We let the figures speak for themselves. According to Cancer Research UK figures:

  • Smoking causes 19% of all cancers and 86% of all lung cancers
  • Processed meat causes 3% of all cancers and 21% of all bowel cancers.
  • If no one smoked there would be 64,500 fewer cases of cancer every year.
  • If no one ate meat there would be 8,800 fewer cases of cancer every year.

Hardly the same risk.

IARC is not saying that we should give up meat neither are the health authorities here in the UK saying that. Red meat can form part of a healthy and nutritious diet just don't overdo it. Meat is high in protein and contains iron and B vitamins which are essential for good health. The advice is that you don't eat more than 70g or meat a day. As far as bacon, sausages and other processed meats are concerned, the odd English breakfast every now and then will do you no harm.

Medicine is a continuously developing and foods that not too long ago were considered to be bad for us are now thought to be healthy. In the words of TV cook Nigella Lawson "you can guarantee that what people think will be good for you this year, they won’t next year.” Just eat a balanced diet and do plenty of exercise.