Processed meats can cause cancer, says World Health Organisation

By @iamkarlatecson on
An employee sells sausages in a shop of the Solgonskoye farming company in the village of Solgon, southwest from Krasnoyarsk, September 6, 2014. Picture taken September 6, 2014. Reuters/Ilya Naymushin

Eating processed meat such as sausages and ham causes cancer, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The organisation's cancer research unit recently classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” after sufficient evidence from more than 800 related studies linked it with colorectal cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

“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. In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance,” said Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme.

In addition to colorectal cancer, consumption of processed meat is also associated with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, according to IARC.

Processed meat is defined by the WHO as any type of meat that is transformed through salting, curing, fermentation or smoking to enhance its flavour or improve its preservation. While most processed meats are generally pork or beef, they may also contain poultry or meat by-products such as blood. Hot dogs, corned beef and canned meat are some examples of processed meats.

While processed meat is now classified in the same category as smoking and asbestos based on its certainty of a link with cancer, the World Health Organisation stressed that it does not mean that they are equally dangerous. 

Red meat, meanwhile, is now classified as “probably carcinogenic,” based on limited evidence that its consumption causes cancer in humans.

According to Dr Christopher Wild, IARC director, the findings further support current public health recommendations to limit the intake of meat. However, he doesn’t discount the fact that red meat has nutritional value.

“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,” he said. 

About 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to diets that are high in processed meat, according to the WHO. Australia is reported to have the highest level of bowel cancer in the world, along with New Zealand.

In a study published in October 2015 by the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, researchers said that this might be because of the country’s culture of barbecues with a high red meat component. According to the research, red and processed meats were significant risk factors for bowel cancer. 

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