Does Meat Cause Cancer?

Experts at the  World Health Organisation (WHO) have given a cancer warning about processed and red meat consumption.  

Last week’s report announced that processed meats have been given a Group 1 (definitely causes cancer) carcinogen classification, and red meats a Group 2A (probably causes cancer).

Red meat is classed as fresh red meat; Steak, pork, lamb etc. In contrast to these, white meats, such as fish, chicken or turkey, have no links to the increased risk of  cancer.

Processed meat is classed as products such as bacon, chorizo, salami, sausages: products that have been cured, salted, smoked or preserved in some way. The study found that eating 50 grams of processed meat, i.e. 2 slices of bacon, can increase our chance of bowel cancer by 17-18%

Out of every 1000 people in the UK, around 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point over their lives. Studies have shown that, with those that eat the least amount of processed meats, the figure drops to 56 in 1000.

Writing for Yahoo Health, Kathryn Bradbury of the University of Oxford said that there may be a few compounds in red meat that explain the link with bowel cancer:

“Cooking meat produces heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA), which are suspected carcinogens …

Red meat also contains haem iron and, when eaten, this leads to the formation of N-nitroso-compounds (NOC), which again are suspected to be carcinogenic…. If you’re big on eating red meat, it’s a good idea to cut back.” 

That said, cutting out processed and red meat consumption from your diet isn’t going to completely eliminate the risk of contracting cancer. And while smoking causes an estimated 20% of all cancer cases in the world, processed and red meat accounts for under 3%. In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Ian Johnson of the Institute of Food Research said: .

“It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around twentyfold.” 

Meat can still be a great source of nutrients such as protein and iron. The advice of many experts has been to reduce our intake rather than cut out completely.

Also in the Guardian, Dr Elizabeth Lund, consultant in nutritional and gastrointestinal health said:

“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, vegetables and cereal fibre, plus exercise and weight control, will allow for a low risk of colorectal cancer and a more balanced diet.” 
Government advice has recommended that those who currently eat 90g of red or processed meat a day should drop to 70g. They have created a guide on how these amounts relate to common portions of food:

  • A portion of Sunday roast (three thin-cut slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, each about the size of half a slice of sliced bread): 90g 
  • A grilled 8oz beef steak: 163g 
  • A cooked breakfast (two standard British sausages – often sold in packs of eight that weigh 1lb or 454g and measuring around 9cm long – and two thin-cut rashers of bacon): 130g 
  • A large doner kebab: 130g 
  • A 5oz rump steak: 102g 
  • A quarter pounder beefburger: 78g  
  • A thin slice of corned beef: 38g 
  • A slice of black pudding: 30g 
  • A slice of ham: 23g 

So if you eat too much red meat, try swapping it for chicken, turkey, fish or a bean dish, for a more balanced, healthy diet that still contains protein. Fish in particular is packed with nutrients, protein, vitamin D and is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. Turkey is a lean meat and  turkey mince can be a great substitute for beef mince when making burgers. Or why not try a bean and veggie chilli instead of a chilli con carne.


See below for some tasty and healthy recipe alternatives to red meat dishes: 

         Healthy Fish and Chips!                                                                 Turkey Burgers!

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                        Chicken Bake!                                                                            Fish Curry!                                 

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                Veggie Chilli!                                                                            Vegan Shepards Pie!

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