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Public health campaign highlights processed meat and cancer link

2023-03-14 Ingredients Network

Tag: Meat


The charity’s Cancer Prevention Action Week 2023 coincides with a major new study that believes 8,500 bowel cancer deaths per year could be prevented if people stop eating processed meat.

“These findings underline by how much the burden of bowel cancer could be reduced by less consumption of processed meat,” said Professor Dr Hermann Brenner, study author and divisional head of preventative oncology at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

“The findings demonstrate the large potential of dietary habits for cancer prevention – and show a high number of preventable cancer cases if people significantly cut down on processed meat.”

The link between processed meat and cancer is not a new one with evidence implicating the food’s role in the development of colorectal cancer building for years.

In 2015, the United Nations’ International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorised processed meat as a human carcinogen (Group 1). This meant there was enough evidence to conclude that it could cause cancer in humans. The evidence for red meat was less definitive and IARC classified it as a probable carcinogen (Group 2A).

Intake of red or processed meat is high in adults

Despite these conclusions, the intake of red or processed meat is high. In Germany, more than a quarter of the adult population consumes more than 108 grams (g) of red or processed meat per day (756 g per week), according to a nationally representative survey.

The IARC recommends limiting the daily intake of red or processed meat. Every 100 g of red meat intake or 50g of processed meat intake per day have been associated with an increase in colorectal cancer risk by 12% and 16%, respectively.

Professor Brenner’s findings support WCRF’s recommendation.

“These findings further highlight that regularly eating processed meat can significantly increase the risk of bowel cancer,” said Dr Panagiota Mitrou, Director of Research and Innovation at WCRF, which is based in London.

“That is why this Cancer Prevention Action Week we are encouraging people to reduce how much processed meat they eat to help lower their risk of this common cancer.”

What makes meat processed?

To add greater impetus to the campaign the charity commissioned its own research into the topic, which discovered that almost six in 10 Brits were unaware that processed meat could increase the risk of bowel cancer.

Surveying 2,000 UK adults, the results exposed the confusion around processed meat revealing that just over half (53%) of respondents had only a rough idea of what goes into making processed meat, and a quarter (25%) admitted they had no idea.

When asked which of the following needs to happen for meat to be considered processed, under a third (31%) of all respondents said it had to be cured, less than a quarter said it had been smoked (23%), and only around half (52%) thought it had chemical preservatives added.

Processed meat: A definition

Processed meat is defined as any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives and includes ham, bacon, sausages, corned beef, and sliced luncheon meats.

When consumed, certain chemicals that are added to meat to preserve it, such as nitrates and nitrites, react with the body. This reaction contributes to the increased risk of bowel cancer.

“Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, but 54% of these cases could be prevented,” said WCRF’s Head of Research Interpretation, Dr Helen Croker.

“Our analysis of global research shows that eating even very small amounts of processed meat on a regular basis will significantly increase people’s risk of bowel cancer.

“So, this Cancer Prevention Action Week we are encouraging people to reduce how much processed meat they eat and help lower their risk of bowel cancer by swapping the processed meat in their sandwiches for healthier and affordable alternatives.”


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