Fans of a fry-up had bad news this week as the WHO published a report stating that consuming processed meats such as sausages and bacon can contribute to an increased risk of getting cancer. In the report processed meats were categorised as Group 1, meaning that they are carcinogenic to humans. Red meats were categorised as Group 2a, meaning that there is insufficient evidence to fully conclude that there is a carcinogenic effect, but many studies show a strong link between red meats and cancer.
It was concluded that the consumption of 50 grams of processed meat every day, the equivalent to just under two slices of bacon, increases the likelihood of getting colorectal cancer by 18%. It is estimated that 34,000 deaths each year from cancer could be due to a diet high in processed meat. This is based on the analysis of more than 800 studies that investigated the associations between meat and colorectal cancer.
The carcinogenic effect of processed meat is thought to be due to the chemicals involved in its production. Furthermore, the way processed meat is typically cooked is also thought to contribute – cooking at high temperatures such as pan frying or using a barbeque is thought to create carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
Whilst the link is strong, the WHO has stressed that red meat has nutritional value and can be a key source of protein, B vitamins and minerals. Cancer Research UK has stated that there is no need to completely give up processed and red meats, but rather that moderation is key. The report is hoping to influence public health guidelines which already stress the need for a balanced diet in conjunction with regular physical exercise.