The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has announced it is classifying processed meats as a carcinogenic, meaning there is now “sufficient” evidence to conclude that the consumption of everything from sausages to corned beef can cause cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.
The IARC also found that red meat can “probably” cause cancer, although the evidence it found to support this link is less robust. These conclusions published in the medical journal Lancet Oncology, were arrived at by 22 global experts after reviewing more than 800 studies.
The IARC’s announcement is the strongest statement yet by a public health body linking meat and cancer. It has also provoked anxiety amongst carnivores and backlash from the meat industry, which blasted the IARC findings as “dramatic and alarmist.”
The IARC has designated processed meats a “Group 1” cancer hazard, which places them in the same category as everything from asbestos to tobacco.
Experts also stress that the cancer risk of consuming a smoked meat sandwich still pales in comparison to that of smoking a cigarette. At this point, the public health message isn’t to quit meat, which can be a good source of nutrients like protein and iron, just to eat it in moderation.
“I don’t think people need to all of a sudden become vegetarian or avoid meat altogether,” said Rayjean Hung, a cancer epidemiologist with Mount Sinai’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, who has previously worked with the IARC. “You need to think about what is a balanced meal, what is moderation.”
The evidence linking cancer and meat consumption has been accumulating for some time, according to Hung.
While there isn’t enough data to conclude what constitutes a “safe” level of meat, the IARC did find that greater consumption translated to greater risk: for every 50 grams of processed meat (the equivalent of one or two bacon strips), the cancer risk grows by 18 per cent. For red meat, every 100 grams increased risk by 17 per cent.
Doctors agree that one third of cancers can be prevented by eating well and living a healthy, active lifestyle.
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