Processed Meat and Red Meat: The Increased Risk of Colorectal Cancer

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that revealed strong links between consuming red and processed meats and an increased risk of cancer. The organization concluded there is enough evidence to place processed meats into the “Carcinogenic to Humans” category, which is the highest class of cancer causing agents (the same category as cigarettes). Additionally, there is evidence that eating red meat may cause cancer, as they were assigned to the “Probably Carcinogenic to Humans” group. The cancer that is most associated with this risk is colorectal cancer.  

This report confirmed previous recommendations made by WHO, the American Cancer Society, and the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (you can read a summary of their analysis in a recent report on preventing colon cancer).

This is tough news to hear, especially for those who regularly enjoy foods that fall into the red and processed meat categories. Bacon, burgers, steaks, deli meats, hot dogs: these are the staples of our menus at home as well as when we eat out. 


Which meats are considered red meat?


Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb, and venison.

What are processed meats?


Processed meats are meats that have been preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or adding chemical preservatives. Some examples of processed meats are bacon, hot dogs, deli meats, ham, sausage, pepperoni, and beef jerky.

How does eating these meats increase the risk of cancer? 


Evidence shows three chemicals in particular that can cause colorectal cancer:

  • Heme is a pigment that occurs naturally in meat; it gives it the pink or red color

  • Nitrates and nitrites are substances that are added to processed meat to keep it fresh

  • Heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines are chemicals that are produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures

Consuming these chemicals can damage the DNA of the cells in the colon and rectum. The more damaged the cells become over time, the higher the risk of cancerous growths forming. 


How can I reduce my risk?


By reducing your consumption of these meats, you can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. A few rules to follow:

  • Limit your red and processed meat servings to one to two per week

  • Keep a food log to be mindful of how much red or processed meat you are eating

  • Look for ways to eliminate processed meats in your menu: try pizza with veggies instead of pepperoni or sausage

  • Substitute poultry (chicken or turkey) for red meat in your recipes, such as ground chicken or turkey in chili or tacos or chicken breasts instead of burgers on the grill

  • Cook with fish or other seafood – fresh, frozen, or canned are all healthy options

  • Add grilled chicken, a hard-boiled egg, beans, or flaked tuna to your salad instead of cubed deli meat

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