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Meat and cancer: the facts

Tuesday 27 October, 2015 by Mel

The World Health Organization has sent the meat eaters of the world into a spin with the announcement that eating processed meats causes cancer, and eating red meat may cause cancer.

But what does this mean and do we really need to stop having bacon with our Sunday morning brunch?

WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer analysed over 800 studies, looking at processed and red meat consumption and the link to cancer.

Processed meats, such as bacon, sausages and salami, have been classified as a Class 1 carcinogen. This puts them in the same category as tobacco, alcohol, and ultraviolet radiation. They have a definitive link with cancer, and in this case, especially bowel cancer.

Red meat has been classified as a Class 2A carcinogen, which means they probably cause cancer, but the evidence isn't as strong. This needs to be weighed against the known benefits to lean red meat consumption, including supplying iron, protein, zinc and vitamin B12 in our diets.

While these classifications are new, it doesn't change what Cancer Council has been saying for years – limit your intake of processed and red meats.

We can still have the odd ham sandwich for lunch, or a snag in bread at the hardware store BBQ on the weekend, just not every day of the week. Over 2,500 cases of bowel cancer per year in Australia are linked to processed and red meat intake.

Lean red meat should be limited to no more than 65–100 grams three to four times per week. Try smaller serves of meat by adding extra vegies to your plate, or try fish, chicken or legumes (such as chick peas or lentils) instead of red meat.

We can also help to counteract the negatives of meat intake with increased vegetable consumption, increased exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight.

So while the delicatessens and butchers of the world may not appreciate this news, we don't need to abandon them totally. As we are so often told – everything in moderation.

Even among staff at Cancer Council Victoria, the questions around processed and red meats are coming thick and fast. We put some of the commonly asked questions to our Director of Prevention, Craig Sinclair.

How does meat cause cancer?
The exact process is not known, it may be because of the fat content, the way it's cooked (such as charred meat), or the way processed meat is prepared such as curing or smoking.

What about smoked salmon?
The latest report only investigated red meat and processed meat, it didn't include white meats or fish. We do know that while omega-3 fatty acids from fish are associated with a range of health benefits, smoked salmon is very high in salt so should be limited. Cancer Council Australia recommends eating fish (preferably the oily variety) twice per week.

Is cancer risk reduced if you make your own processed meat or choose low-salt varieties of processed meat?
Although the exact reason for the link between cancer and processed or red meats is unknown, the cooking process and fat content may play a role. The best way to lower your risk is to limit lean red meat intake to 65-100g, 3-4 times per week and only eat processed meat occasionally.

What about minced meat?
Minced beef, lamb and veal are all red meats, so choose lean minced meat to include in your weekly red meat intake. Generally, the less white spots you can see on it, the leaner it is.

What about the paleo diet, isn't that healthy?
While the paleo diet promotes eating more vegetables, it may lead to increased meat consumption and restrict some foods that provide important nutrients. Fill your plate with vegetables and whole grains and limit your intake of red meat to 65-100g, 3-4 times per week.

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