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World Health Organization Issues Warning On Processed Meat
- Updated: October 26, 2015
According to the latest report from the World Health Organization (WHO), consuming processed meat like bacon, sausages and ham lead to a greater risk of developing cancer. Processed meat is meat that has been modified to increase its shelf-life or alter its taste, typically by smoking, curing or adding salt or preservatives. The modifications to the meat could be increasing the risk of cancer. High temperature cooking, such as on a barbecue grill, can also create carcinogenic chemicals in foods.
The report claimed that consuming 50g of processed meat a day, the equivalent of about two slices of bacon, increased a person’s chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 percent. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which assesses the best available scientific evidence, provided information used in the report. The panel reviewed decades of research on the link between red meat, processed meat, and cancer, including animal experiments, studies of human diet and health, and cell mechanisms.
Processed meat has now been placed in the same cancer causing category as plutonium. Estimates suggest that 34,000 annual deaths from cancer could be related to diets high in processed meat. That is significantly lower than the one million deaths from cancer attributed to smoking and 600,000 attributed to alcohol each year.
The report also said that red meats were “probably carcinogenic,” but the evidence to support that claim was limited. The WHO reported there was limited evidence that consuming 100g of red meat a day increased a person’s risk of developing cancer by 17 percent. An eight ounce steak is 225g of red meat.
The report did not recommend giving up meat altogether. The WHO report did stress that consuming meat had health benefits. Red meat has significant nutritional value and is a major source of iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
The report is one of the most aggressive stances against meat taken by a major health organization. The WHO findings go well beyond the tentative associations that other groups have reported. In recent years, meat consumption has been the target of much social criticism, including its role on human health, the impact of feedlots on the environment, and animal welfare concerns.
The report’s recommendations are expected to face stiff criticism in the United States, where meat is a staple of many meals. The U.S. beef industry, worth about $95 billion, is expected to issue a response to the report and some scientists, including some unaffiliated with the meat industry, are questioning whether the evidence is substantial enough for the strong conclusions in the report. The public debate over the WHO’s findings will likely play out in political lobbying and in marketing messages over the next several months.