Processed Meats - The Cancer Connection

On October 26 the World Health Organization released a sweeping review listing processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen. For those keeping track that puts processed meats in the same category as cigarettes and x-rays. This category means sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity to humans. Red meat in general was listed as Group 2B meaning possibly carcinogenic. So, what does this mean for you? Is this the end of hot dogs at the ballpark? Is it time to become a vegetarian and if not what are really the risks?

How Processed and Red Meats Lead To Cancer

The problem with processed meats is the sodium nitrates added as a preservative. Even those products marked “No Nitrates Added” are treated with celery juice which is naturally high in nitrates. The nitrates react in the body to form nitrosamines which are a known carcinogen. The idea that processed meats are bad for you is not new. For many years we have known that the high fat and sodium content can lead to heart disease.  The cancer connection, however, is relatively new.

In the case of red meat the tasty charring that occurs during grilling can cause carcinogens to form. Meats cooked at high temperatures produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines that cause DNA changes. Both processed and red meats are high in heme iron. Heme iron may contribute to colon cancer by causing the formation of N-nitroso compounds. 

How Much Of a Cancer Risk?

Grilled sausage   

The study suggested that 50 grams of processed meat per day increases your cancer risk by 18%. Essentially, that is 1 hot dog, 6 slices of bacon or 2 slices of ham.  These numbers can be deceiving though. Consider that the average lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer is 5%.That means consuming 50 Grams of processed meats would increase that risk 18% of 5% or basically 1% extra. So, 1 serving would make your risk 6% total. Add a serving and it would go up yet another 1%. So, where as any increase in risk is not desirable, the numbers aren’t quite as scary as you are lead to believe. Let me add that fully one third of the panelists did not agree with the study finds.

How To Minimize the Risk

If you are like me and don’t plan to entirely give up on red meat there are some changes worth taking. Try keeping deli meats to a minimum maybe once every week or two. The same goes for hot dogs. I prefer getting actual turkey or chicken breast and cutting it up myself to put in sandwiches. Marinating your meats before cooking helps significantly reduce hydrocarbon formation, beer is particularly an effect marinade.  Eating red meat less often and replacing it with fish and poultry, (chicken and turkey are low in heme iron) would also go a long way to better health.

You don’t have to swear off your favorites, just make them your choice less frequently. On the plus side when you do indulge you will enjoy it much more. Absence makes the heart and stomach grow fonder.       


Time Magazine Vol. 186, No 19 The War On Delicious