Food & DrinkFour questions about the relationship between meat and cancer

Four questions about the relationship between meat and cancer


The World Health Organization published a report last Monday warning that the consumption of processed meat may increase the risk of colorectal cancer, in addition to other tumors such as prostate or pancreatic cancer.

The document has provoked a cascade of reactions, with many possibly wondering if meat consumption is safe. To resolve doubts about the report, we posed a series of questions about the WHO statement on processed meat. What do these conclusions mean? Should we change our eating habits?

What are the differences between red and processed meat?

The World Health Organization itself explained in its report that red meat refers to “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse or goat.” On the contrary, white meat is that derived from animals such as chickens, turkeys and rabbits. The two types of meat contain a significant amount of protein, but their main difference lies in their iron content. The WHO has specified that red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans, which is why it has been included in group 2A, although it has also pointed out that the scientific evidence is still limited.

The institution, however, has pointed to processed meat as “culprit” for the increased risk of some types of cancer. In this case, the WHO defines processed meat as foods of meat origin that have been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes that improve their flavor or preservation. The  frankfurters  of the dogs, ham, corned beef, jerky or prepared meat-based sauces are examples of processed meat.

What is the relationship between meat and cancer?

The WHO has found sufficient evidence, after considering 800 studies of the last twenty years, that processed meat can be carcinogenic. In particular, the entity considers that the consumption of 50 grams of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. In addition, this type of food would also be related to tumors such as pancreatic or prostate. For this reason, the WHO considers that processed meat should be included as “carcinogenic to humans” in group 1, along with other products such as tobacco or alcohol.

This statement may cause widespread alarm, but as pointed out by the Spanish Agency for Consumer Affairs, Food Safety and Nutrition (AECOSAN), the WHO document has indicated a danger, not a risk as such. What does this mean? Cancer Research UK  has explained it on its blog. If science has estimated that 61 out of every 1,000 people in the UK will develop colorectal cancer at some point in their lives, those who eat the least amount of processed meat will be at lower risk than the rest of the population. In other words, those who eat less processed meat will have a lower risk of developing these types of tumors (56 cases per 1,000).

Cancer Research UK has also pointed out that although the evidence for processed meat is the same as for tobacco, the risks are very different. Specifically, smoking is associated with 86% of lung tumors, while these foods are associated with 21% of colorectal cancer cases. To make another comparison: if people stopped smoking cigarettes, there would be 64,500 fewer cases of cancer. If they did it with red and processed meat, the British organization estimates that tumors would be reduced by 8,800 cases. But there would be another important difference: as we will analyze later, meat has great nutritional value, something that does not happen with cigarettes.

What types of cancer would be associated with meat consumption?

As we have already anticipated, the consumption of processed meat would be related to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. According to the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology (SEOM), this type of tumor is the most frequent in Spain in both sexes. It is also the second cancer with the highest mortality in our country, after lung tumors. The WHO has also found evidence that the consumption of processed meat is associated with other types of cancer, such as pancreatic or prostate cancer.

In the first case, we are not dealing with a tumor with a high incidence among the population, however, it is a cancer with a high mortality. In any case, the WHO has not said anything new: there have been scientific studies for years that have linked a high consumption of processed meat with a greater probability of suffering from this type of tumor. For this reason, Dr. Kurt Straif has clarified that “for an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer from their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.”

Should we stop eating meat?

No. Meat is an important food for our diet, as it contains protein, iron, zinc or vitamin B12. That is, the meat has a high nutritional value. As AECOSAN explains, the WHO report should not be taken in an alarmist way, since “it is consistent with current nutritional guidelines.” The Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition has also stated that we must promote our Mediterranean diet pattern.

In other words, the entity points out that we should eat red and processed meat occasionally. Something similar to what FESNAD points out, when commenting that we limit the consumption of lean meats to three times a week and that processed meat be eaten on time. All organizations affirm that a good diet and physical exercise are key to maintaining a good state of health.

The warnings launched these days should make us improve our lifestyle, but without generating alarmism. After all, as our life expectancy increases, the number of cancer cases will also increase, since it is a disease directly related to aging. Improving diagnosis and treatment are essential for medicine, so any effort made in prevention -as now with the report on processed meat- must improve our health care.

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