Red Meat and Processed Meat’s Link to Cancer

Photo credit: Bigstockphoto
Photo credit: Bigstockphoto

It’s been a bad week for bacon after the World Health Organization or WHO declared all types of processed meats are carcinogenic. WHO placed processed meat in the same category of cancer risk as asbestos and cigarette smoking. The health agency also said that red meats – such as beef, veal, and pork – could also increase the risk of cancer to some people. Understandably, much confusion (and heartbreak) ensued.

For reference, processed meats are meat products that are sold cured, salted, smoked or preserved in one way or another. Bacon, hot dogs, salami, and pepperoni are just a few types of processed meats. Red meats are fresh animal protein from cattle, pig and sheep. Of the two types of meat products, processed meats are strongly linked to bowel cancer.

The Evidence

According to WHO, a group of 22 scientists reviewed an extensive archive of evidence that link processed foods and red meat consumption to cancer. The scientists concluded that a diet rich in red meat and processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer exponentially. The findings were published in The Lancet.

Likely Causes of Cancer

Cooking Method

The cooking methods used to process fresh and processed meats can affect their cancer-causing potentials. Meats exposed to direct flame generates cancer-causing compounds. However, the scientists said more research is needed “to reach a conclusion about whether the way meat is cooked affects the risk of cancer.”


For decades, scientists have been trying to pin down the exact reason why processed meats are cancerous. But the likely cause is the cocktail of chemicals used to preserve the meat. Red and processed meats are not equal in cancer risk. Processed meats are the more dangerous of the two. Processed meats are treated with nitrite preservatives that produce N-nitroso compounds in the gut. N-nitroso are carcinogenic compounds linked to bowel cancer.

One compelling evidence is a scientific analysis by the WCRF in the UK. Researchers found that those who frequently eat processed meat have a 17% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Haem in Red Meat

Red meat contains a chemical called haem. This chemical is part of the red pigment in the blood hemoglobin. When haem is broken down in the gut, it generates N-nitroso compounds too. These cancer-causing chemicals can damage the cells that line the intestines. When this happens, the other cells in the bowel replicate themselves to repair the damaged tissues. The “extra replication” of bowel cells increases the risk of cell mutation. This will trigger the generation of malignant cells, which inevitably leads to intestinal cancers.

How to Reduce Cancer Risk

WHO’s latest conclusion regarding the cancer risk of processed and red meats does not mean you should stop eating these products for good. Just cut back your consumption of red and processed meats to reduce your risk of cancer. For instance, if you consume more than 90 grams (cooked weight) of red or processed meat in a day, cut it down to 70 grams or less. It helps if you increase your intake of fiber-rich foods, fruits and vegetables to reduce cancer risk.

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