Science

World Health Organisation class processed meat as cancerous

Feasting on bacon butties and ham sandwiches is officially unhealthy. A new report by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identifies processed meats as top carcinogens, ranking them with arsenic and tobacco. In other words, these meat products are considered likely to produce tumours because of their connection with the rise of bowel cancer.

Examples of processed meat include bacon, ham, sausages, canned meats and hot dogs. In essence, all meat transformed to boost flavour and preservation time through smoking, salting or curing.

The investigation looked at different diets and populations. “It is one of the most complex assessments of the medical and scientific literature ever undertaken concerning a particular cancer risk,” says Professor Bernard Stewart who oversaw the committee responsible for the report.

IARC’s conclusion is the result of the work of two dozen specialists, from ten different countries that went through more than 800 scientific articles about the connection between meat and various types of cancer.

Eating too much red meat in general was also proven dangerous. Having a lot of beef or pork was determined as being probably carcinogenic to humans, increasing the risk the pancreatic and prostate cancer.

For every 50 grams of processed meat ingested daily, the risk of developing bowel cancer rises 18 per cent, according to the press release. That’s around three slices of bacon or ham. Furthermore, the Global Burden of Disease organisation states that every year 34,000 cancer-related deaths are attributed to excessive processed meat consumption. This puts processed meats in the same riskgroup as tobacco smoke, arsenic and alcohol. However, the risk is not the same. Tobacco causes 1 million of deaths per year, alcohol consumption 600,0000 and air pollution 200,000.

“It’s also important to put the cancer risks associated with red and processed meat into context in terms of other preventable cancer causes,” warns Kathy Chapman, a member of Australia’s Cancer Council. The nutrition expert believes that instead of avoiding meat completely, “An overall healthy lifestyle, including diet, is important to reduce your cancer risk.”

Not everyone agrees that processed meat is bad. According to the North American Meat Institute, avoiding these products defies common sense. Betsy Booren, the institute’s vice-president of scientific affairs accuses the IARC of manipulating the results: “They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome. Yet, Professor Bernard Stewart himself says that eliminating all red meat is not in question: “No-one’s proposing that we ban bacon, put warnings on hot dogs or take beef off the BBQ.” In fact, the recent WHO review is not saying anything new, but gives strong evidence that consuming red or processed meat in the long-term increases the risk of cancer.

Back in 2009 the charity World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) was already making headlines for asking parents to stop feeding their children salami and ham because of researched that connected processed meat to bowel cancer. Thus, according to Professor Stewart: “The findings provide a new degree of certainty for health authorities who produce evidence-based dietary guidelines.”

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