Does eating processed and red meat cause cancer?

Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

  • Yes, processed meat can cause bowel cancer
  • Eating lots of red meat can also increase the risk of cancer
  • The less processed and red meat you eat, the lower your risk - there’s lots of ways to cut down

What’s the difference between processed and red meat?

Processed meat includes ham, bacon, salami, and sausages. Red meat includes all fresh, minced, and frozen beef, pork and lamb.

Fresh white meat, such as chicken and fish, are not linked with an increased risk of cancer.

What types of cancer are processed and red meat linked to?

Eating lots of processed and red meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer.

We know for definite that processed meat is a cause of cancer, but the scientific evidence for red meat is less clear. Red meat is classed as a probable cause of cancer. This means there is lots of good evidence of a link, but we need a few more of the best quality studies to be certain.

There is also some evidence for an increased risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer. But we need more research to know for sure if processed and red meat affects the risk of getting these cancer types.

How does processed and red meat cause cancer?

Chemicals (found in the meat, added during processing, or produced when cooking) can increase the risk of cancer by damaging our cells.

These chemicals include:

  • Haem 

This is a red pigment that is naturally found in red meat and processed red meat. It can damage cells, and cause bacteria in the body to produce harmful chemicals. This can increase the risk of cancer.

  • Nitrates and nitrites

These chemicals can be used to keep processed meat fresher for longer. When we eat them, nitrites can be converted into cancer-causing chemicals (N-nitroso compounds or NOCs). These chemicals may be the reason why processed meat increases the risk of cancer more than fresh red meat.

  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic amines (PCAs)

These chemicals are produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures, which includes grilling or barbequing. They can damage cells in the bowel.

Find out more about the link between meat and cancer on our science blog.

How can I eat less processed and red meat?

Making small changes can help you cut down, why not try;

  • Meat-free Mondays – pick a day (or days) to not have any meat
  • Opt for dishes or recipes that use fresh chicken or fish instead of processed or red meat
  • Use pulses, like beans or lentils, as a substitute for some or all of the meat in your usual dishes
  • Reduce your portions – try having one sausage instead of two, or replacing some of your meat with veggies

More expensive or organic processed and red meat are not necessarily any healthier, so switching to these won’t make a difference to cancer risk. The best thing to do is to cut down on all types of processed and red meat.

Can I have a small amount of processed and red meat?

Research has found an increased risk of cancer for every 25g of processed meat a person eats a day, which is about a rasher of bacon or a slice of ham.

Find out more in our blog post about processed and red meat.

The Department of Health recommends that people who eat a lot of meat should cut down to 70g or less per day, which is about 3 slices of ham.

So if you’re eating a lot of meat on most days, it’s a good idea to think about cutting down. But the less you eat the lower your risk, so cutting down is good for your health no matter how much you eat.

 

Over the last decade, strong evidence has proven that processed meat causes cancer. So we are equally as sure of the link as we are for other proven causes of cancer, like tobacco and UV rays from the sun. But this doesn’t mean they all cause the same number of cases of cancer.

Brown KF, Rumgay H, Dunlop C, et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. British Journal of Cancer. 2018;118:1130-1141.

Chan DSM, Lau R, Aune D, et al. Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: meta-analysis of prospective studies. PloS one. 2011;6:e20456-e20456.

International Agency for Research on C. Red Meat and Processed Meat. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Vol 114. http://publications.iarc.fr/Book-And-Report-Series/Iarc-Monographs-On-The-Identification-Of-Carcinogenic-Hazards-To-Humans/Red-Meat-And-Processed-Meat-2018

NHS. Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer. Vol 2019. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/red-meat-and-the-risk-of-bowel-cancer/#portion-sizes-and-cutting-down2018.

World Cancer Research Fund. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. A summary of the Third Expert Report 2018. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer.

World Cancer Research F. Diet, nutrition, physical activity and colorectal cancer. World cancer research fund; 2017. https://www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Colorectal-Cancer-2017-Report.pdf.

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