Does eating processed and red meat cause cancer?

  • Yes, processed meat can cause bowel cancer
  • Eating lots of red meat can also increase the risk of cancer
  • However much you eat, cutting down will reduce your risk, and there’s lots of ways you can do this

How does processed and red meat cause cancer?

It’s the chemicals that are either found in the meat, added during processing or produced when cooking that are thought to increase the risk of cancer by damaging our cells.

These chemicals are;

  • Haem

This is a red pigment that is naturally found in 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 are chemicals that can be used to keep processed meat fresher for longer. When we eat them, nitrites can be converted in to 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, and can damage cells in the bowel.

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

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.

More expensive or organic processed and red meat are not necessarily any healthier, so it’s better to cut down altogether rather than to switch to these.

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 red meat

  • Use pulses or beans 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

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 just around a rasher of bacon or a slice of ham.

Find out more in our blog post 

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

How sure are we that processed meat causes cancer?

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.

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, there is also some evidence for an increased risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer.

The evidence to show processed meat is a cause of cancer is as conclusive as the evidence for tobacco. But that doesn’t mean it causes the same number of cases of cancer. Smoking causes far more cases of cancer in the UK each year.

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:

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.

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: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2018.

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.

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.

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