Not-So-New News: The World Health Organization (WHO) Warns About the Health Risks of Processed Meats
Headlines across news and social media outlets in October 2015 sent bacon and hot-dog lovers into a panic with the newest data suggesting that processed meat causes cancer.
But the shocking news is, this isn’t news at all!
While many are rushing to the fridge to throw out their cold cuts, wracking their brains to tally the amount of bacon consumed last week or are pondering the growing fear of the proposed ramifications of that weekend hot dog, still others are in disbelief or even fatalistic. But this ‘new’ fear of processed meats simply isn’t new.
The ‘new’ evidence
The recent shift in media focus to processed meats was initiated by a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO). On October 26th, 2015 the report presented the findings from work conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the WHO. If you look beyond the headings the interesting part is no new research was conducted!
The IARC had a panel of experts (22 from 10 different countries) review the accumulative scientific research findings on the subject matter of carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Those studies that were most influential had been conducted over the last 20 years.
Upon review these experts classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”. Furthermore, they state that sufficient evidence was found to support the consumption of processed meat linked to colorectal cancer. The consumption noted by experts was a 50 gram (1¾ ounce) portion of processed meat eaten daily is thought to increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. In the report it was acknowledged that these findings support current health recommendations to limit intake of meat.
What we already know
Warnings to reduce processed meat intake have long been publicized. In 2002, the American Cancer Society published recommendations to limit consumption of both red and processed meats. A statement released from Susan Gapstur, MPH, PhD, vice president of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, “In fact, classifying processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans is not unexpected. Indeed, based on earlier scientific studies, including findings from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, the American Cancer Society has recommended limiting consumption of red and processed meat specifically since 2002”.
Furthermore, in 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund in conjunction with the American Institute for Cancer Research issued a report recommending limiting consumption of both red and processed meats. The suggested volume of processed meat has been looked at in the literature—see this Trim Down Club article for a re-cap.
Processed meats primarily consist of hot dogs, bacon, sausage, ham, and pre-packaged cold cuts. The chemicals in processing (curing, smoking, solvents, other chemical preservatives, etc.) have been questionable components of our food system for quite some time. The quality of our meat has declined and is less than the ideal option for optimal health; feed lot raised meats, meat with hormones and/or antibiotics, foods containing meat byproducts, smoking, extrusion and superheating of meats all contribute to poor quality of food and potential negative health outcomes.
Processing of meat by way of salting, curing, or other methods can cause a build-up of carcinogenic compounds in the food. In cooking red meat various carcinogens can develop as well, more commonly referred to as the ‘char’ or burnt outcome of the meat. In the same report from the IARC, they made note of the various methods of cooking that produce the highest amounts of these chemicals. Noted were cooking by pan frying, grilling or barbecue.
This information is derived from review of several studies and has also been stated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). According to the NCI, these cooking techniques produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are DNA altering chemicals increasing a person’s risk for cancer. They state that in addition to red meats, fish and chicken can produce the same chemicals under these high temperature cooking methods.
HCAs are formed with the reaction of the temperature itself and PAHs are formed when the fat and juices drip into the fire causing flames. The level of doneness can impact the amount of these chemicals. The well done, grilled or barbecued meats carry the highest concentration. The flames contain the PAHs that adhere to the surface of the meat; additionally they can also be formed via the technique of smoking meats. Numerous epidemiological studies have been conducted with outcomes showing that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of various cancers.
Nitrites and nitrates have been used for thousands of years as a preservative. They are found naturally in water and vegetables, and vegetable sources of nitrates have been associated with benefits to the circulatory system. Today the compounds is chemically manufactured for use in cured meats, fertilizer and even toothpaste. During the process of preserving meats in particular, nitrites are added for the purpose of preservation, coloring and flavoring. The dangers arise when they are often converted to nitrosamine compounds that have been clearly linked to increased risk of certain cancers. The HCAs previously mentioned can also form when cooked at high temperatures, which is done in the preparation of bacon and ham.
It’s also important to note that the report from the IARC explains that red meat also contains quality proteins and important micronutrients. These include B vitamins, iron and zinc. One of the problems with our meat food supply these days is the quality. With emphasis on fast production feed lot/grain fed cattle are far less superior than grass fed cattle. The added hormones and antibiotics in our meat food supply are of concern.
Research has identified clear differences in the improved fatty acid composition (more heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, less fat overall, higher conjugated linoleic acid) and antioxidant content of grass-fed and ‘pastured’ meat (read more about this here). The deteriorating nutrition quality of meat and theabundance of processed meats areimpacting our health, this information in not new. The message though is a helpful reminder to seek out quality and watch our quantity.
If you’re an informed consumer, the October 2015 WHO report presented information you already know.
One important fact to keep in mind is that one food doesn’t cause a disease; there are other variables at play. Other lifestyle and environmental factors impact the complex disease of cancer.
Besides red and processed meats, don’t leave out the negative health implications of radiation, alcohol, tobacco, obesity, lack of exercise, poor consumption of fruits and vegetables, and stress as risk factors for disease.
If you choose to eat processed meats, you may approach it with a bit more caution and moderation. Here are a few things to consider if you’d like to keep red meat and some processed foods in your diet:
- Select organic meats that are grass-fed/pastured/free-range, purchase uncured bacon, sausages or deli cuts. The latter use natural vegetable sources of nitrites and nitrates that are less concentrated.
- Avoid purchasing meats with MSG or artificial preservatives, artificial, or coloring.
- Purchase handmade sausages from your local butcher.
- Cut out meats with by-products, select 100% beef or chicken products.
- Avoid cooking at high heat. Bake, roast, broil, poach, braise, or steam. When grilling or pan frying, do so at a lower heat setting, flipping the meat often, and above all, avoid blackening.
Follow these strategies to lessen the harm on your body—you deserve it!
World Health Organization. International Agency on Research of Cancer. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. Press Release. Lyon, France. October 26, 2015.
National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk Reviewed: October 19, 2015.
Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis 2004; 44(1):44–55.
Cross AJ, Ferrucci LM, Risch A, et al. A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: An investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association. Cancer Research 2010; 70(6):2406–2414.
Anderson KE, Sinha R, Kulldorff M, et al. Meat intake and cooking techniques: Associations with pancreatic cancer. Mutation Research 2002; 506–507:225–231.
Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ, Cross AJ, Silverman DT, et al. Meat and meat-mutagen intake and pancreatic cancer risk in the NIH-AARP cohort. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention2007; 16(12):2664–2675. [
Cross AJ, Peters U, Kirsh VA, et al. A prospective study of meat and meat mutagens and prostate cancer risk. Cancer Research 2005; 65(24):11779–11784.
Sinha R, Park Y, Graubard BI, et al. Meat and meat-related compounds and risk of prostate cancer in a large prospective cohort study in the United States. American Journal of Epidemiology2009; 170(9):1165–1177.
WCRF/AICR Expert Report. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective 2007. Retrieved November 1st, 2015
Daley et al. Review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidantcontent in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition JournalMar 2010, 10; 9:10A.
Van Elswyk ME, and McNeill SH. Impact of grass/forage feeding versus grain finishing on beef nutrients and sensory quality: the U.S. experience. Meat Sci. 2014 Jan;96(1):535-40.
Bjorklund EA, et al. Fatty acid profiles, meat quality, and sensory attributes of organic versus conventional dairy beef steers.J Dairy Sci. 2014 Mar;97(3):1828-34.