WHO Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer, So Should We Stop Eating It Altogether?

Is this the end of bacon, hot dogs and corned beef on rye?

How should consumers react to news from the World Health Organization that these and other processed meats can cause cancer, and that red meat, including beef, pork, veal and lamb, are "probably carcinogenic to humans" too? Should we abstain completely now that the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put processed meat in the same cancer-risk category as tobacco and asbestos?

Here's the bottom line risk, from the IARC news release: "The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%."

Processed meats have previously been inked to a range of illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes and cancer. But even with this big news from the WHO, many nutrition and public health experts said that reducing consumption of such meats is key, not eliminating them altogether.

Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, says there's no need for everyone to suddenly become vegetarian or vegan. But, he said in an interview, he hopes the WHO announcement will spark real dietary change.

He made three points:

1. The WHO Announcement Is Big 

"I think the WHO announcement is very significant from a public health point of view because processed red meats have already been linked to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic disease, and this provides convincing evidence that consuming processed meats, like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer in particular. Cutting back on red meat and processed meat reduces risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but also reduces the risk of cancer. Improving your diet can actually be beneficial for reducing your cancer risk."

2. You Don't Need To Quit

"I'm not a vegetarian. This doesn't mean everyone should become a vegetarian or vegan. Processed red meat should be consumed as little as possible — once or twice a week should not be a major problem. For unprocessed red meat, consumption should be moderate, but that's hard to quantify; maybe every other day. We're not talking about banning hot dogs, sausages or bacon, but we should change our dietary pattern from a meat-based diet to a more plant-based diet. That's not really a new message. This message will hopefully raise more awareness. Hopefully it will motivate people to change their eating patterns."

3. Change The Food Environment

"Certainly the risk accumulates as the amount increases, and if you can stay away from it completely that would be good. But occasional consumption of processed red meat isn't going to create significant health problems ... There are so many chemicals and ingredients in processed red meats — preservatives, nitrates, high sodium, saturated fats — it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which chemicals cause cancer. From a public health point of view, it's not necessary to know which chemicals are precisely responsible for the increased risk. Here the message is similar to tobacco, even though we may not know precisely which chemical cause the cancer, we can take actions to reduce the cancer risk by cutting back ... It's also important for the government to improve the food environment. There's so much junk food in the food system."

Others also backed a balanced approach to meat eating.

In its coverage of the WHO announcement, NPR quotes Susan Gapstur of the American Cancer Society, who in a written statement said that her organization recommends "consuming a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant foods and limiting consumption of processed meat and red meat."

Cancer Research UK, a cancer research charity in the United Kingdom, responded to the WHO announcement with a statement from their epidemiologist at Oxford University, professor Tim Key: "We've known for some time about the probable link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer ... Eating a bacon bap [sandwich] every once in a while isn't going to do much harm -- having a healthy diet is all about moderation."

And here are some more level-headed thoughts from Center for Science and the Public Interest, which issued a statement from its nutrition director, Bonnie Liebman:

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that processed meats like bacon, sausage, and cold cuts are “carcinogenic to humans” and red meats like beef and pork are “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This solid and reasoned assessment, based on a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence, should guide the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services as they finish writing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Sadly, IARC’s report has already provoked new hysteria from the meat industry and is likely to stir up its allies in Congress. They will follow the playbook of all industries that feel they are under attack—asbestos, tobacco, and coal are three that come to mind—and shout from the rooftops that the science is in doubt.

It’s not.

If the meat industry and its political henchmen would listen for a moment, here’s what IARC said: “Eating meat has known health benefits. Many national health recommendations advise people to limit intake of processed meat and red meat, which are linked to increased risks of death from heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses.”

Does that sound familiar? Here’s what the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee wrote in its report: “Thus, the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains.”

The American Cancer Society, American Institute for Cancer Research, and the World Cancer Research Fund have recommended eating less red and processed meats for years.

The meat industry, which is attacking the IARC, has less credibility than the Flat Earth Society. Here is what a veritable who’s who of scientists wrote in the National Institute for Environmental Health’s “Environmental Health Perspectives” earlier this year: “The IARC Monographs have made, and continue to make, major contributions to the scientific underpinning for societal actions to improve the public’s health.”

In short, IARC is the gold standard for rigor, comprehensiveness, and reasonableness—all qualities in short supply in the meat industry and its friends in Congress.

The North American Meat Industry also responded to the WHO report, saying in a statement that it "defies ... common sense."

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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