It’s official: bacon, sausages and ham DO cause cancer, says WHO

Bacon and Ham

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a report confirming what many health experts have suspected for years – eating bacon, ham and sausages can cause bowel cancer.

Consuming as little as 50g of processed meat per day – equivalent to a slice and a half of bacon, one breakfast sausage or two slices of ham - increases the risk of developing colorectal or bowel cancer by as much as 18%, says the report.

The report effectively classifies processed, or salted and cured, pork as a Group 1 carcinogen, alongside tobacco, alcohol and asbestos. The WHO is also expected to warn that red meats are “probably carcinogenic”, however, conclusive evidence for this, it says, is currently limited.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” says Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs Programme. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), has long warned that there is convincing evidence that processed meat consumption can cause bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer increase

According to Cancer Research UK, bowel cancer rates have increased steadily in the UK since the mid-1970s, with a decline towards the end of the 1990s. A more recent increase in diagnoses can be attributed to bowel screening programmes, which detect cancers at an earlier stage.

Dr Jill Jenkins, a GP and member of the industry sponsored Meat Advisory Panel, told the BBC’s Today programme that she would personally not be advising her patients to stop eating meat, but she did recommend exercising caution around the levels of processed meat consumption.

All Day Breakfast

“I think certainly that we should be keeping a low level, so everything in moderation,” she told the programme. “From the same body we have had advice about the carcinogenic effects of the air we breathe and the sun on our skin, so I think we have to take it within reason in that if you are stuffing in burgers and sausages and bacon every day, yes you are at risk.

“If you have some healthy, locally made high-protein sausage once a fortnight, well, I personally don’t consider that a risk.”

Health benefits of red meat

Dr Elizabeth Lund, Independent Consultant in Nutritional and Gastrointestinal Health and former research leader at the Institute of Food Research, says the information should be “put into perspective”. She says that meat is a good source of iron and zinc, key micronutrients that women in particular often lack. She warns that around half of teenage girls have an insufficient iron intake, an essential nutrient that she says is more bioavailable from meat than from vegetables or supplements.

According to NHS Choices, menstruating women need 14.8 mg iron per day, while for everyone else 8.7g per day is sufficient. Other good iron sources include dried fruits, such as apricots and raisins, leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, savoy cabbage and curly kale and fortified cereals.

BBQ Steak

Balanced diet

Dr Lund adds: “Data from 2011 indicate lifetime risk for bowel cancer in the UK is about 58 men per 100,000 and 38 women per 100,000. That is an extra 48 men or 28 women so only a small portion of this might be related to meat consumption. A much bigger risk factor is obesity and lack of exercise. Overall I feel that eating meat once a day combined with plenty of fruit, vegetable and cereal fibre plus exercise and weight control will allow for a low risk of CRC and a more balanced diet.”


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