The Link between Processed Meat and Cancer: What You Need to Know

December 10, 2015 Brigham and Women's Hospital

Recent research says that eating processed meat products, such as hot dogs and bacon, can increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer.

Recent research says that eating processed meat products, such as hot dogs and bacon, can increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer.

Eating processed meat products can increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer, according to a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO). Processed meat is classified as meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, or smoked to add flavor or preserve the meat. These meats include ham, bacon, sausages, corned beef, hot dogs, canned meat, and beef jerky.

In its findings, the IARC also determined that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” based on “limited evidence.” Red meat consumption was mainly linked to an increased risk for colorectal cancer, but it also had associations with pancreatic cancer or prostate cancer. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, mutton, lamb, or goat.

“The report synthesizes data from numerous studies conducted for the past 20 years, including the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, that showed increased intake of processed and red meat are associated with higher likelihood of developing colorectal cancer,” says Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, MPH, Clinical Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

“IARC is a well-respected organization that methodically and critically reviews study data. They are cautious about making definitive statements on exposures and cancer risk. Thus, this report stating that processed meat definitively causes cancer and red meat probably causes cancer is very telling,” adds Dr. Meyerhardt. “However, we need perspective in this guidance. It does not mean that everyone who eats processed or red meat will get colorectal cancer, nor does it mean that not eating these meats will eliminate your risk of colorectal cancer.”

So, what is recommended for patients?

“High consumption of either red meat or processed meat relatively increases your risk compared to those who eat little or none of these products. Low intake is typically defined as no more than two servings per week. So, eliminating these foods from your diet completely is not required, but we recommend minimizing consumption and substituting with other alternatives, like chicken and fish,” says Dr. Meyerhardt.

This post originally appeared on Insight, the blog of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

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