Vegetarians and vegans alike may be smugly raising a fork to their Tofurky sausages while bacon lovers bemoan the findings of a new report issued by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which evaluated the carcinogenicity of red meat and processed meat.
Bacon lovers beware?
The review concluded that “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.” That’s less than two slices of cooked bacon. But it’s not just bacon. Processed meat includes sources of protein such as hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky and more—basically any meat that’s “been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”
The IARC reports that “this association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.”
But it’s not necessarily all bad news. “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” says Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, which convened 22 worldwide experts for the review.
What about red meat?
While the review found sufficient evidence to classify processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, red meat was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans “based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence.” The IARC says, “consumption of red meat has not been established as a cause of cancer.”
A growing number of global meat-eaters
As meat consumption in low- and middle-income countries is on the rise, “the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance,” Straif said. The IARC adds that “although some health agencies already recommend limiting intake of meat, these recommendations are aimed mostly at reducing the risk of other diseases. With this in mind, it was important for IARC to provide authoritative scientific evidence on the cancer risks associated with eating red meat and processed meat.”
Carnivores: time for Tofurky?
While the decision to eat meat or not is a personal matter, the findings, say Dr Christopher Wild, director of IARC, “further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat.” He adds, “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
As the saying goes, “Everything in moderation.” So if you’re a carnivore, you don’t have to ditch those dogs yet—but you might not want to go joining any hot-dog eating contests.