W.H.O. study links processed meats to cancer

by Erica Shaffer
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Array of red and processed meats
The IARC has said processed meats are "carcinogenic to humans" based on reviews of hundreds of studies.

LYON, FRANCE – The International Agency for Research on Cancer (I.A.R.C.), which is part of the World Health Organization, has definitively linked the consumption of processed meats to an increased risk for developing certain cancers. The I.A.R.C. published a summary of the panel’s findings in The Lancet Oncology.

The I.A.R.C. panel of health experts classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence,” while consumption of red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. The I.A.R.C. concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. Examples given by the I.A.R.C. included hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky in addition to canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauce.

Kurt Straif
Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the I.A.R.C. Monographs Programme

“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,” Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the I.A.R.C. Monographs Programme, said in a statement. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health concern.”

A panel of 22 health experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies that examined the associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with consumption of red meat or processed meat. The studies were from “many countries and populations with diverse diets,” the I.A.R.C. noted. But the most influential evidence came from large cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.

But industry groups such as the North American Meat Institute (N.A.M.I.) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have come out in opposition to the I.A.R.C.’s findings. N.A.M.I. said the I.A.R.C.’s classification of meat as carcinogenic was a “dramatic and alarmist overreach.” The N.C.B.A. said science doesn’t support the agency’s findings. In fact, I.A.R.C. members were unable to reach a consensus agreement on whether red meat is a “probable” cause of cancer.

Shailene McNeil
Shalene McNeill, Ph.D., RD, Beef Checkoff nutrition scientist and registered dietitian who observed the I.A.R.C. process

“Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” said Shalene McNeill, Ph.D., RD, Beef Checkoff nutrition scientist and registered dietitian who observed the I.A.R.C. process. “Billions of dollars have been spent on studies all over the world and no single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer. The opinion by the I.A.R.C. committee to list red meat as a probable carcinogen does not change that fact. The available scientific evidence simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.”

The I.A.R.C. said the association of red meat consumption to cancer was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but was also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Thus, the I.A.R.C.’s findings supported recommendations to limit intake of red meat. However, the agency acknowledged the health benefits of meat consumption. 

Christopher Wild
Dr. Christopher Wild, director of the I.A.R.C.
“These findings support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, director of the I.A.R.C. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
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