Does Meat Cause Cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organisation recently published results on their evaluation of the risk of developing cancer from the consumption of processed meat and red meat.

Does meat cause cancer?The report refers to processed meat as meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation for example sausages, ham, bacon, and salami.  It refers to red meat as including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. It does not include poultry and fish.


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Processed meat was classified as group 1, “carcinogenic to humans”, whereas red meat was classified as group 2A “probably carcinogenic to humans”. 

This does not mean that all the agents in Group 1 (which include substances such as plutonium, tobacco and alcohol) are equally hazardous.

It is important to recognise that this classification system indicates the weight of the evidence as to whether a substance is capable of causing cancer. It is not a measure of how potent the substance is as a cause of cancer.  

The IARC concluded that each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

A number of experts weighed in on the IARC’s findings, putting them into perspective:

Prof. Sir David Spiegelhalter, University of Cambridge, remarked:

“There may be good evidence for there being an increased risk, but the magnitude needs to be put into perspective.  In the normal run of things, around 6 in every 100 people would be expected to get bowel cancer in their lifetime.  If all these 100 people ate a three-rasher (around 50g) bacon sandwich every single day of their lives, then according to this report we would expect that 18% more would get bowel cancer – which is a rise from 6 cases to 7 cases. So that’s one extra case of bowel cancer in all those 100 lifetime bacon-eaters.”

In comparison, Prof. Kevin McConway, Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said

“Of 100 lifetime non-smokers in the UK, around 1 will get lung cancer. For 100 smokers of a pack a day, more than 20 will get lung cancer. That’s a huge increase in risk.”

So, despite what some sensationalist articles would have you believe, eating red meat is not as dangerous as smoking. Red meat is a good source of complete protein, fat, and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron and zinc. 

However restricting the amount of processed meat in the diet has always been advisable for good health.  A healthy diet is all about moderation.

Top Tips

  • Meat portion sizeWhen eating red meat, aim for a portion of about the size of the palm of your hand without your fingers and thumb. On average this is about 100g/4oz.
  • Choose alternatives to red meat such as poultry, fish and lentils (the latter 2 protect against colon cancer) so that red meat is only eaten as a main meal approximately three days per week. 
  • A diet high in fibre is associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancers.
  • When cooking meat at high temperatures, take care to avoid burning.
  • Finally, eating a healthy diet, being physically active for at least 30 minutes every day and maintaining a healthy weight throughout life are three positive steps to help reduce your risk of developing cancer.
More information

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Liam Leech, MSc. ANutr.

Associate Nutritionist







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