A lot of RDs are scrambling to respond to the recent announcement that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has made on the connection between red meat and processed meat and certain cancers. I am happy to read that a lot of RDs continue to side with reason and moderation rather than fear mongering.
Here is what you need to know about the most recent findings from the IARC.

They looked at more than 800 studies

The IARC Working Group took into account the findings of more than 800 studies. These studies investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets.

Yes, processed meat has been found as a definite cause of cancer. No, it is not as dangerous as cigarettes. 

  • Processed meat is to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. For example, hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, and biltong or beef jerky as well as canned meat.
  • Processed meat has been classified as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer (or Group 1 carcinogen) – the same group that includes smoking and alcohol. This does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. These classifications (Group 1 vs Group 2) do not assess the level of risk. They only describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer.
  • How much is too much? the exact amount that is safe or dangerous to eat is still unknown. 

Red meat has been categorized as “probably” cancer causing. 

  • Red meat is beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.
  • Red meat is a ‘probable’ cause of cancer (or a Group 2a carcinogen) – the same group as shift work.
  • How much is too much? the exact amount that is safe or dangerous to eat is still unknown. 

How you cook red meat may make a difference. 

Cooking at high temperatures or with the food in direct contact with a flame or a hot surface, as in barbecuing or pan-frying, produces more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines). So, if you stick to cooking at lower temperatures as in stewing or slow cooking, you will produce fewer of these carcinogenic chemicals.

Bowel cancer (or colorectal cancer) was found to have the greatest link.

For red meat, the evidence is still limited. However the strongest association was with colorectal cancer. For processed meat, it was concluded that the greatest risk is for colorectal cancer.

The Cancer Reasearch UK has a great blog post outlining the IARC’s conclusions. They have also created these fantastic graphics:

You can read all the reports here: