When the World Health Organization listed processed meat as a group 1 human carcinogen in 2015, I became terrified of processed meat and didn’t to eat any meat for an entire month. My fear caused me to not even conduct research on what a group 1 human carcinogen is, the studies supporting the World Health Organizations’ decision to list processed meat as a human carcinogen, and whether or not I could still consume processed meat. I have dedicated this blog post to answering some of the previous concerns I had about consuming processed meat in the hopes that it will inform others to make rational decisions about eating or not eating processed meats.
Before delving into the research concerning processed meat, there should be an understanding of what is considered processed meat, and what the group 1 human carcinogen categorization means. The World Health Organization defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Examples of processed meats are bacon, sausage, salami, hot dogs, processed deli meats, cured ham, and corned beef. The group 1 categorization of processed meats means the World Health Organization deems there is an acceptable amount of evidence supporting the link between the consumption of processed meat and cancer risk. While reading through a number of studies about processed meat and cancer risk, I noticed the results in a majority of the studies showed positive associations between the consumption of meat and cancer risk. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer is a slight exception to these studies. The research is a case control study completed in Uruguay between 1996-2004. 6, 060 subjects with a variety of cancers, including lung, oral cavity, stomach, colon, female breast, and prostate, were interviewed via food frequency questionnaires about their consumption of 64 different food items. The processed meats on the food frequency questionnaire are bacon, sausage, mortadella, salami, saucisson, hot dog, ham, and air-dried and salted lamb. An unconditional linguistic multiple regression was used to determine the relative risks of having cancer by using ORs (odds ratio). The results showed that all of the processed meats in the study, except for bacon and sausage, were associated with high relative risks. However, the discussion of this study interpreted all processed meats increasing cancer risk. This research cast doubts about overgeneralizing that all processed meats are carcinogens, and more studies should be conducted on specific processed meats to determine if only certain ones are cancer inducers.
Although studies have shown that the consumption of processed meats increases the risk of cancer, I do not believe there is any harm in sparingly eating a piece of bacon or any other processed meat.
*Note: An odds ratio is a statistical measure used to determine if an outcome will occur based on the presence or absence of an exposure.
- Stefani, E. De, P. Boffetta, A. L. Ronco, H. Deneo-Pellegrini, P. Correa, G. Acosta, M. Mendilaharsu, M. E. Luaces, and C. Silva. “Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Cancer: A Multisite Case–control Study in Uruguay.” Br J Cancer British Journal of Cancer9 (2012): 1584-588. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
- Chan, Doris S. M., Rosa Lau, Dagfinn Aune, Rui Vieira, Darren C. Greenwood, Ellen Kampman, and Teresa Norat. “Red and Processed Meat and Colorectal Cancer Incidence: Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies.” PLoS ONE6 (2011): n. pag. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
- “Q&A on the Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat.” World Health Organization. N.p., Oct. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
- Mccullough, M. L., S. M. Gapstur, R. Shah, E. J. Jacobs, and P. T. Campbell. “Association Between Red and Processed Meat Intake and Mortality Among Colorectal Cancer Survivors.” Journal of Clinical Oncology22 (2013): 2773-782. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
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- Choi, Yuni, Sujin Song, Yoonju Song, and Jung Eun Lee. “Consumption of Red and Processed Meat and Esophageal Cancer Risk: Meta-analysis.” World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG. Baishideng Publishing Group Co., Limited, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.