In its most definitive statement on the subject, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), has directly linked both processed meats and red meat to cancer. The report findings are published in The Lancet Oncology.
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said in a statement. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
The report authors concluded that eating less than 2 ounces of processed meat daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. What’s more, researchers found a positive association between processed meats and stomach cancer.
The IARC defined processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.”
Scientists also found that red meat was linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer.
“These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, Director of the IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
Scientists aren’t entirely sure why red meat is associated with an increased risk of cancer, though they think it may be caused by a sugar molecule found in red meat that triggers an inflammatory response in the human body. Chemicals added in processing, like nitrites and nitrates, could be to blame in processed meats.
It’s unclear how the designation will impact consumption, but currently Americans consume more red meat than any country in the world. In 2012, Americans consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat (beef, veal, pork, and lamb), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The American Cancer Society already recommends that Americans limit their intake of red meat. According to the organization, “[b]ecause of a wealth of studies linking colon cancer to diets high in red meats (beef, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (hot dogs, bologna, etc.), the Society encourages people to eat more vegetables and fish and less red and processed meats.”
Though the news is not surprising, according to scientists, it should help governments reevaluate their dietary recommendations.
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