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The World Health Organization (WHO) says they cause cancer but are they all that bad? By Kirsten Braun

In October last year several media reports claimed the WHO had declared eating bacon and other processed meats as dangerous to our health as tobacco smoking. Many of these reports were alarmist and didn’t clearly explain the increased risk of eating processed meat. So what is the full story?

What did the WHO report say?

The report was released by the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the WHO. The report said there were enough scientific studies to include processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens due to their link with bowel cancer. The report looked at evidence from approximately 1000 previous studies.

What are processed meats?

Processed meats are those that are transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or the addition of preservatives. Examples include bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami, frankfurters, corned beef, South African biltong, beef jerky, canned meat and some sausages. Sausages, hamburger patties and minced meat are only considered processed meats if they have been preserved with salt or chemical additives. 

Are processed meats as dangerous as smoking?

While processed meats are placed in the same Group 1 category as tobacco smoking it does not mean that they are as dangerous. The categories are based on the strength of scientific evidence, not the level of risk. Other carcinogens included in Group 1 are asbestos, outdoor air pollution, ultraviolet radiation (UV), alcohol and hormonal contraceptives. To put it into perspective, people with a high consumption of processed meats are 1.3 times more likely to develop cancer compared to 20 times more likely for a smoker.

What is the increased cancer risk of processed meat?

The report identified that each 50 gram (g) portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent. This quantity of processed meat is approximately one hot dog or one middle rasher of bacon. The risk increases with the amount of processed meat consumed so if you eat 100 g the risk of bowel cancer increases by 36 per cent. The 18 per cent increase does not mean that you have a 18 per cent chance of getting bowel cancer, but that your risk is 1.18 times higher than that of a person who does not eat processed meat. It is expected that there will be more than 17000 new cases of bowel cancer diagnosed in Australia this year. 

Why do processed meats increase the risk of cancer?

The reason that processed meats increase the risk of cancer is not completely clear. It may be the chemicals involved in the processing of the meat (e.g., nitrites), high salt/saturated fat content or chemical changes that occur during the cooking process. Most likely it is a combination of these factors. It might also be that if you are eating a lot of processed meat you are eating less vegetables and grains which are protective against cancer.

Are processed meats without added nitrites any better?

Most processed meats use a synthetic form of nitrite for preservation purposes. However, many organic processed meats, in particular ham and bacon, use a natural preservative, usually in the form of celery powder or celery juice. However, celery powder and juice are high in a natural form of nitrite. Therefore, the level of nitrites is very similar in both the organic and non-organic products.

What should people do with this information?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines place processed meats in the discretionary category, alongside items like soft drinks, biscuits, chocolate, chips, lollies and alcohol. This means they should only be consumed sometimes and in small amounts. It is important for people to remember that there are other lifestyle risk factors for bowel cancer including smoking, alcohol consumption, being overweight or obese, being physically inactive, and having a diet low in dietary fibre.

Tips for reducing processed meat consumption

  • Replace deli meats in sandwiches with tinned tuna, salmon or egg.

  • For those who enjoy a cooked breakfast, swap some bacon and/or sausages for extra tomatoes or mushrooms.

  • Poach a chicken breast and use slices in place of deli meats on pizza and in sandwiches.

  • Swap a BLT (bacon, lettuce, tomato) for an ALT (avocado, lettuce, tomato).

  • Swap a hot dog to a felafel on pita bread with hummus, tabouli and salad.

Last updated: March 2016.

©Women’s Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women’s Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2016 Issue 1.

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