So what exactly did the study find?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC – part of the WHO) reviewed more than 800 studies examining links between meat and cancer. The research included people from around the world, of different races and on different types of diets. In their conclusions, processed meat (bacon, sausage, hot dogs) was placed in the ‘carcinogenic to humans’ category. The authors noted that for every 50 g portion of processed meat eaten daily, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 18%. Red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat) was placed in the category ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, the team noting that there was insufficient evidence to definitively prove a link. For each 100 g portion of red meat eaten daily, the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17%.
You may have read that processed meat is in the same category as tobacco use, but that doesn’t mean eating a lamb sausage raises your cancer risk as much as smoking does. IARC classifications are based on the strength of evidence that something may cause cancer, not actual risk. Tobacco smoking causes about a million cancer deaths a year worldwide, while diets high in processed meat cause about 34,000.
So if I eat meat, will I get cancer?
Experts say you don’t need to abstain just yet, but their findings “support current public health recommendations to limit meat intake,” said IARC’s director Dr Christopher Wild.
“I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorise people into thinking they should not eat any red meat at all,” said Dr John Ioannidis, chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University.
There’s not enough evidence to suggest specific levels of safe meat eating, but Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in the US, recommends “no more than one to two servings per month of processed meats, and no more than one to two servings per week of unprocessed meat.”
Are certain kinds of meat safer than others?
Lean cuts of meat are always your best option, whether you’re eating chicken or beef. Fattier portions of the animal have more saturated fat and cholesterol, which have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and premature death. Choosing to minimise the amount of processed meats, including bacon and sausage, which are often high in saturated fat and sodium, is also a smart diet move for your overall health and waistline.
Does it matter how I cook my meat?
As a matter of fact, it does. Studies show that grilling or barbecuing meat over flame or at high temperatures can create charring that may lead to the formation of chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens.
Is it easier (and safer) for me to just go vegetarian?
Not necessarily. Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals your body needs for everything from brain to muscle to your immune system function. By eliminating meat entirely, you could miss out on key nutrients that can affect your health if you don’t find other ways to get them.