Does eating processed and red meat cause cancer?

  • Yes, eating 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 means any meat that's been preserved or changed. This could be by smoking, curing, salting, canning or adding preservatives. Processed meat includes ham, bacon, salami and sausages. It also includes processed white meat such as chicken nuggets and sliced lunch meats.

Red meat includes all fresh, minced, and frozen beef, pork and lamb.

Fresh white meat, such as chicken and fish, is not linked to 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. We are equally as sure of the link as we are for other proven causes of cancer, like tobacco. But this doesn’t mean they cause the same number of cancer cases.

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 that eating processed and red meat increases the risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer. But we need more research to know for sure.

 

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 more to not have any meat
     
  • Finding new recipes that use fresh chicken or fish instead of processed or red meat
     
  • Substituting some or all of the meat in your usual dishes for pulses, like beans or lentils
     
  • Try a Veg Pledge – go vegetarian or vegan for a month to explore more meat free options
     
  • Reducing your portions – try having one sausage instead of two, or replacing some of your meat with veggies
     
Top tip – Switching to more expensive or organic processed and red meat won’t make a difference to cancer risk. The best way to lower your risk is to cut down on all types of processed and red meat.

 

How much processed and red meat can I eat?

Research has found an increased risk of cancer for every 25g of processed meat a person eats a day. This is about a rasher of bacon or a slice of ham. So, if you’re eating processed and red meat most days, it’s a good idea to think about cutting down.

The government 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. But the less you eat the lower your risk, so cutting down is good for your health no matter how much you eat.

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

 

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. 

These chemicals include:

  • Haem 

This 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 are used to keep processed meat fresher for longer. When we eat them, nitrites can become 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.

 

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 Cancer. Red Meat and Processed Meat. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2018. 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(link is external)

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

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(link is external).

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