Red Meat Confirmed as Carcinogenic – But How Bad is it?

By: Royer Cook, Ph.D.

An important report from the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that consumption of red meat (which includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat) and processed meats (like hot dogs, ham and sausage) are associated with an increased risk of cancer, especially colon cancer. The link between these meats and some forms of cancer, particularly colon cancer, isn’t new. Scientific evidence has been accumulating for decades that colon cancer is more common among people who eat the most red meat and processed meat. What’s new is that the central conclusion about the link between red and processed meat and cancer came not from a single study but from a meta-analysis of more than 800 studies, thereby enhancing the reliability of the conclusions.  In evaluating these studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a well-known and respected agency of the World Health Organization, looked at the association of cancer with eating  processed meat or red meat.  The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.

The WHO can now say – with a high degree of confidence – that red and processed meats are carcinogenic.  However, although the WHO now places these meats in the same category of carcinogens as smoking and alcohol, this does not mean that red meats are as hazardous to your health as smoking or drinking alcohol; it just means that the confidence in the link to cancer is roughly the same.  Indeed, the report also states that eating these meats increases your risk of colon cancer by only 16%, whereas smoking increases your risk of lung cancer by approximately 2000%.  Stated somewhat differently, while the link between red meat and colon cancer is fairly definite, the increased risk is fairly small.  Consequently, you can keep your risk of colon cancer to low levels simply by limiting your intake of red meat and processed meats.

An important side note:  One of the problems with the press reports of this type is that too often (especially in the electronic media) they treat the findings in relative isolation, and fail to step back for the broader picture.  Thus  while the risk of cancer from eating red meat is fairly small, it’s important to remember that eating red meat has also been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (go to our Heart Healthy program for more information).   Recent studies have raised questions about the extent to which the causative agent in creating arterial plaque is saturated fat or carnitine (a substance affecting microbes in the gut); however, the association between red meat and heart disease remains, and that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and a moderate amount of fish appears to offer the most protection against developing both heart disease and colorectal cancer.

The bottom line: By moderating both the frequency and the amount (portion size) of red and processed meats that you consume on a weekly basis, you can reduce your risk of both colon cancer and heart disease.