Report finds processed meats can cause cancer

Processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausages, ham, beef jerky, and lunch meats can cause cancer, according to a research division of the World Health Organization (WHO). And other red meats may as well.

After reviewing hundreds of studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s cancer research arm, concluded that processed meats should be classified as carcinogenic to humans for colorectal cancer. Processed meats often contain pork or beef but can also contain other red meats, turkey, or chicken. Carcinogenic chemicals involved in processing and cooking may contribute to the higher risk of cancer from processed and red meats.

Unprocessed red meats were deemed “probably carcinogenic” by the IARC because evidence suggests a link between eating them and developing colorectal cancer, as well as pancreatic and prostate cancer.

“This shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who’s been following the field,” said Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an October 27, 2015 Boston Globe article.

Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard Chan School, told WBUR’s CommonHealth that the WHO report is “very significant from a public health point of view because processed red meats have already been linked to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic disease, and this provides convincing evidence that consuming processed meats…is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer in particular.”

Both Hu and Willett said it’s not necessary to totally give up processed meats, but to limit them instead, and to replace them with healthier sources of protein.

“Have red meat the way we think of lobster, a special event, a few times a year,” said Willett.

Kana Wu, senior research scientist in the Department of Nutrition, was one of the study authors.

Read the Boston Globe article: WHO says processed meat is ‘carcinogenic’ to humans

Read the WBUR article: WHO Says Processed Meats Causes Cancer, So Should We Stop Eating It Altogether?

Read the IARC press release: IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat

Learn more

Red meat consumption linked to increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality (Harvard Chan release)

Red meat linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes (Harvard Chan release)