The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that bacon, sausage, hot dogs, deli meats and other processed meats cause cancer. After extensive research and evaluation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm—classified bacon and other processed meats as “Group 1” carcinogens, along with cigarette smoking and asbestos. Group 1 carcinogens are those that have what the WHO describes as “sufficient evidence” on humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
WHO defines “processed meat” as meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or other processes used to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Some types of processed meats classified as Group 1 carcinogens include: “hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, biltong or beef jerky, and canned meat.”
Red meat consumption, in general, was also categorized as a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning that there is limited evidence that red meat consumption causes cancer in humans, with additional “strong mechanistic evidence” that supports the assertion that red meat causes cancer. Red meat is therefore classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
A group of 22 of the world’s leading cancer scientists from 10 countries formed the IARC committee involved in evaluating over 800 studies, exploring the relationship between meat consumption and more than a dozen different types of cancer before categorizing processed meat and red meat as carcinogens. For every 1.76 ounces of processed meat eaten daily, the scientists found an 18 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer. As a result, the WHO classifications come with advice to limit the intake of meat.
The World Health Organization recognizes the widespread ramifications of making such classifications, particularly in light of the widespread number of people who eat processed or red meat worldwide. Some of these ramifications will undoubtedly be economic ones, especially to the corporations producing these types of meats. But, increased awareness of the effects of high consumption of processed and red meats could help reduce the number of people suffering from cancer. Currently, the American Cancer indicates that more than 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer worldwide, every year.
While cigarette smoke and asbestos are also listed as Group 1 carcinogens, that doesn’t mean they are they are all equally carcinogenic, simply that there is sufficient research clearly linking these substances to cancer.
Other studies link processed meat consumption to all-cause mortality, such as one in BMC Medicine of 448,568 people over more than 12 years. Scientists concluded that eating processed meats significantly increases the risk of premature death.
While smoking or curing meats as well as adding questionable preservatives like nitrates are in part linked to the meats’ carcinogenic properties, they are not the only factors: how the meat is cooked plays a significant role. A study published Cancer Medicine determined that high temperature cooking methods such as pan-frying and oven-broiling red meat also increased the risk of cancer. When foods like red meat are heated over high temperatures or come in contact with grill flames, compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can form. Both compounds are known carcinogens.
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