Sorry Carnivores: Health Research Shows Processed Meats Cause Cancer

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Woman eating ham sandwich
Andrey_Popov /

Bacon, hot dog and sausage lovers, take note: eating processed meats can cause cancer. Consuming red meat may also put you at risk of developing cancer.

That’s according to a new report by the World Health Organization. The study, conducted by the WHO’s cancer research unit, is based on evidence from hundreds of studies.

WHO researchers define processed meats as meat that’s been transformed to enhance its flavor or improve its shelf life by using methods including salting, smoking, fermenting or curing. Examples of processed meat include bacon, hot dogs, hams, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and meat-based sauces.

The WHO now classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” The study specifically links eating processed meat to colon or colorectal cancer.

Although the WHO acknowledges the health benefits of consuming some meat, specifically the nutritional value of red meat, the report says that eating just 50 grams of processed meat each day, which is equivalent to about two slices of bacon, increases your chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Based on the findings of the WHO report, processed meat is now in the same carcinogen category as smoking and asbestos. But the WHO is quick to stress that sharing the same category doesn’t mean that they’re equally dangerous. Eating bacon and salami isn’t as bad as puffing away on cigarettes.

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

Not surprisingly, the WHO report is controversial. According to CNN Money, meat industry groups have criticized it as misleading.

“They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome,” said Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute.

The WHO said red meat does contain important nutrients but noted that the some of the standard methods of cooking it — grilling, pan-frying or other high-temperature cooking — also produce the highest amount of chemicals believed to cause cancer.

What do you think of the WHO report linking eating processed meat to cancer? Will it change your eating habits? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

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