The body of evidence on meat and cancer

baconThe media has been full of stories this week about a recent determination by the World Health Organization: That processed meats such as bacon, sausage and ham increase the risk of developing colon cancer.

Often, when we see mainstream media stories with health recommendations, it’s difficult to know what to believe.  It’s easy for journalists to latch onto a single study without looking at the body of evidence on a topic, or draw a conclusion from a research paper that is not completely accurate. Unfortunately for bacon and sausage lovers, that’s not the case this time around.

The World Health Organization made its recommendation based on a far-reaching review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which includes 22 scientists from 10 countries. They evaluated more than 800 studies investigating the links between red and processed meat and cancer risk.

Their analysis found that eating a tenth of a pound of processed meat eaten each day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. They defined processed meat as meat that has been meat that has been salted, cured, fermented or smoked to increase its shelf life.

While scientists aren’t completely sure about how processed meats lead to cancer, they believe the chemicals used during processing, specifically nitrates, can lead to cancer. Also, cooking meat at high temperatures can create chemical compounds that are carcinogenic. And their conclusion doesn’t apply to only red meat. Any meat that is processed or preserved, including poultry products, contribute to cancer risk.

Should you eliminate all processed meats from your diet?  Not necessarily. But eating processed meats on a regular basis will likely harm your health in the long run.

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