Making Sense of Cancer Risk, Red Meat, and Processed Meats

The recent news about red meat and processed meats and cancer is not really news at all. Cancer research organizations have been reporting on the wisdom of decreasing these meats in the diet for many years.

The recent news about red meat and processed meats and cancer is not really news at all. Cancer research organizations have been reporting on the wisdom of decreasing these meats in the diet for many years. Cancer-preventing diet recommendations haven’t changed with this new report, but the megaphone of the World Health Organization has made folks sit up and maybe pay attention this time, which is a good thing.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, recently released its report classifying processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen. Scientific reports like this can be maddening to decipher accurately. This is likely why: the IARC identifies and classifies environmental causes of cancer in humans. The Agency looks at the weight of the evidence as to whether an agent is capable of causing cancer (technically called “hazard”). It does not measure the likelihood that cancer will actually occur (technically called “risk”) as a result of exposure to the agent.

To start unpacking what this report means, let’s start with how they defined red meat. Red meat refers to unprocessed mammalian muscle meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat.  The report did not look at cancer risks associated with eating poultry and fish. Processed meat refers to meat that has been treated in some way to preserve or flavor it such as salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking. This includes hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, some deli meats, and “uncured” processed meats preserved with ingredients derived from naturally occurring plant nitrates. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but might also contain other red meats, poultry, offal (such as liver), or meat byproducts such as blood.

Meat processing, such as curing and smoking, can create cancer-causing chemicals. Cooking can also produce known or suspected carcinogens. High-temperature cooking by pan-frying, grilling, or barbecuing generally produces the highest amounts of these chemicals.

For the IARC report, twenty-two experts from ten countries reviewed more than 800 studies. They found that eating 50 grams (about two ounces) of processed meat every day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog. For red meat, they found that there was a 17% increased risk of colorectal cancer per 100 grams (about three and a half ounces) per day of red meat.

Putting this risk into perspective, the lifetime risk of someone developing colon cancer is 5%. The studies suggest that the increased risk from eating the amount of processed meat or red meat in the study every day would raise average lifetime risk to almost 6%. The Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, estimates that about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are caused by diets high in processed meat. And if the reported associations between red meat and cancer were proven to be causal, the Project has estimated that diets high in red meat could be responsible for 50,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide. About one million cancer deaths per year are due to tobacco smoking; 600,000 per year due to alcohol consumption; and more than 200,000 per year due to air pollution.

Did this report wake you up to your high red meat or processed meat diet? There are ways to ease your intake down to a less harmful level without giving up delicious flavors. For a quick bite, the Co-op produce department carries a wide variety of no-meat hot dogs and deli-style, meat-free slices. And in the frozen aisle, you can find a large number of meat alternative chunks, ground products, burgers, no-meat balls and more. We even have meat-free jerkies! Websites such as Meatless Monday, Vegetarian Nutrition, and the American Institute for Cancer Research have tasty recipes to try.

To reduce the cancer-causing chemicals formed with high-heat cooking methods, these tips from cancer prevention organizations may help:

  • Use a microwave oven to cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures. This reduces the time that meat must be in contact with high heat and substantially reduces carcinogen formation.
  • Flip meat frequently to reduce carcinogens that may be created.
  • Remove charred portions of meat and don’t eat gravy made from meat drippings.
  • Limit portion sizes and cut smaller pieces to shorten cook time.
  • Chose leaner cuts to prevent dripping fat flare-ups, which can deposit carcinogens on the meat.
  • Use a marinade before grilling. This can decrease carcinogen formation by up to ninety-six percent.
  • Reduce the heat. Cooking at slightly lower temperatures is enough to substantially reduce carcinogen formation.
  • And remember, grilling vegetables and fruits produces no carcinogens. Plant-based foods are associated with lower cancer risk.

Putting risk into perspective helps to figure out where to spend your energy— getting the most disease-risk reduction bang for your buck. Additional lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your cancer risk are: avoiding tobacco, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, and limiting alcohol.

For More Information

Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat.

The American Cancer Society

Vegetarian Nutrition

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Allan Reetz is the Co-op's Director of Public and Government Affairs. Contact Allan at areetz at coopfoodstore dot com.