The World Health Organisation is really down on bacon, finding strong cancer links

Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Bad news meat lovers: the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has been looking at red meat consumption and come to the conclusion that processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages, and corned beef, are carcinogenic, with just small amounts dramatically increasing the risk of bowel cancer.

Reviewing existing scientific literature from more than 800 studies, the IARC’s expert 22-member panel concluded that red meat was “probably carcinogenic to humans”, finding there was “limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”.

The strongest link was with colorectal (bowel) cancer, with associations also found for pancreatic and prostate cancer too.

The red meats studied include beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.

And while the conclusions on processed meat are not new, the declaration that it is carcinogenic to humans is likely to send shockwaves through the industry and consumers as they tuck into a ham sandwich for lunch.

The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

To give that a local perspective, cancer will cause 46,750 deaths in Australia in 2015 and bowel cancer will be responsible for 13.5% (6311) of those deaths. Eating red meat causes 21% of bowel cancers, so 1325 Australians will die this year from cancer caused by eating red meat.

That means 166 out of every 100,000 Aussies who will die of cancer this year, 4.5 of those deaths can be attributed to eating red meat, which accords with WHO’s assessment that the risk remains low.

Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs programme, said the most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.

“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,” he said.

IARC director Dr Christopher Wild said the findings support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat, although he acknowledged its important 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.

While cooking methods were not assessed, the belief is that high-temperature cooking methods, such as barbecuing or pan-frying, can produce more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals that may contribute to increased risk, but their role is not yet fully understood because there was not enough data to reach any conclusions.

The evaluations were published in The Lancet Oncology, and the detailed assessments will be published as Volume 114 of the IARC Monographs.

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