Hot dogs, bacon, sausages and other processed meats have been found to raise the risk of colon, stomach and other cancers, and red meat probably contributes to the disease, too, the World Health Organization said on Monday, throwing its considerable authority behind what many doctors have warned for years.
WHO’s cancer agency analyzed decades of research on the subject and issued its most definitive statement yet, putting processed meats in the same danger class as smoking or asbestos. That doesn’t mean, though, that salami is as bad as cigarettes.
The meat industry protested the classification, arguing that cancer isn’t caused by a specific food but also involves lifestyle and environmental factors.
A group of 22 scientists from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, evaluated more than 800 studies from several continents about meat and cancer. The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.
Based on that evaluation, the IARC classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” noting links in particular to colon cancer. It said red meat has some important nutrients, but still labeled it “probably carcinogenic”, with links to colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers.
The agency said it did not have enough data to define how much processed meat is too dangerous, but said the risk grows with the amount consumed.
What makes sausage-like meat more dangerous are the chemicals released in processing them, including nitrates and nitrites, the cancer agency said.
“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 of the IARC 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 importance.”