WHO Report Links Processed Meats to Cancer, but It’s Important to Maintain Perspective

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The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, has issued a report that says eating processed meats is linked to cancer in people. The report also said that eating red meat was probably linked to cancer in people based on limited evidence.

The report was published online on Oct. 26, 2015 by The Lancet Oncology. Read “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat.”

The report was written by 22 scientists from 10 countries who reviewed 800 studies looking for links between eating red or processed meats and cancer.

For the report, processed meat refers to meat that has been salted, cured, smoked, fermented, or has had other processes done to it to enhance its flavor or preserve it. Some examples of processed meats are hot dogs, ham, sausages, beef jerky, bacon, and corned beef. Red meat refers to beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.

The scientists concluded that each 50-gram serving of processed meat -- the equivalent of about two strips of bacon -- increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. The report also said that eating processed meat was associated with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

Still, before you throw out all your cold cuts, it’s important to remember that the report is talking about a relative increase in colorectal cancer.

The average person in the United States has about a 5% risk of colorectal cancer. For people who eat a lot of bacon or other processed meats, this risk would go up by 0.9% (5% x 18%), for a risk of about 6%. It’s worth pointing out that smoking three cigarettes per day increases your risk of cancer by 500%.

“I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all,” said John Ioannidis, M.D., chairperson of disease prevention at Stanford University, in an interview. “There’s some risk involved, but it’s much less than smoking or alcohol. I think it would be an exaggeration to say based on this that no one should be eating red or processed meat. There is still a lot of uncertainty.”

According to statistics from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), smoking is the biggest risk factor for all types of cancer. The AACR estimates the number of preventable cancers caused by specific risk factors to be:

  • smoking: 33%
  • obesity: 20%
  • lack of exercise: 5%
  • diet: 5%
  • work exposures: 5%
  • alcohol: 3%
  • environmental pollutants 2%

Keep in mind that these numbers are for all types of cancer, not just breast cancer. So to keep your risk of cancer as low as it can be, not smoking and staying at a healthy weight seem to be the two smartest things to do.

It’s also important to know that of the 22 scientists who wrote the report on processed and red meat, seven disagreed with the report’s conclusions or chose to not vote on the conclusions. So the report was not a unanimous opinion.

If you want to do all that you can do to keep your risk of breast and other cancers as low as it can be, there are lifestyle choices you may want to consider, including:

  • not smoking
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising every day
  • eating a healthy diet that’s low in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats
  • limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • breastfeeding, if you have the option to do so

To learn more about breast cancer risk and other options to keep your risk as low as it can be, visit the Breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section.



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