Genesis’ own Research Dietitian, Dr Michelle Harvie, has shared her views on today’s news around the link between processed meat and cancer:

Are processed meats as bad as smoking for causing cancer?

What has been reported?

The world health organisation (WHO) today classified processed meats as a carcinogen linked to the development of bowel cancer and stomach cancer. This conclusion was reached by a panel of expert scientists who reviewed 18 large population studies and found 12 out of these reported higher levels of bowel cancer amongst people eating higher levels of processed meat. Processed meat are mainly beef and pork products which have been processed mainly by salting, curing or smoking and includes foods like bacon, sausages, ham, salami. Typically every extra 350 g/week increased the risk by 18%. Other research has recently linked processed meat to increased risks of heart disease and stroke. The panel reviewed evidence of processed meat and risk of developing a large numbers of cancers including breast cancer but did not find good evidence of links.

What is the take home message?

Cancer is not going to be prevented by avoiding one certain food or including another. This is definitely the case for breast cancer where risk is best reduced by an overall healthy lifestyle i.e. maintaining a healthy weight, taking regular exercise, limiting alcohol. These factors will also decrease the risks of many other cancers including bowel cancer.

This warning about processed meats and bowel cancer risk needs to be in perspective. Research has highlighted more cases of bowel cancer amongst people who eat a lot of processed meat, but these links are nowhere near as strong as the links between smoking and cancer. Eating a portion of processed meat each day of the week will increase the risk of bowel cancer by 20% whilst smoking 10 cigarettes per day increases risk of lung cancer by 800%. Including occasional portions of processed meat as part of an overall healthy balanced diet (high in fibre, fruit and vegetables, vitamins and minerals) and lifestyle are unlikely to be harmful to health.

The panel were unable to make recommendations about fresh red meat and cancer, as the evidence was not conclusive. However, an overall healthy diet to reduce risk of heart disease or stroke should limit red meat (i.e. beef, pork and lamb ) to less than 450g or 3 portions per week.