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What Does the WHO Warning on Red and Processed Meat Mean?

In late October 2015 the cancer agency of the World Health Organisation, IARC, reported the results of a major study that investigated associations of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat.

Here, in plain language, is the basis of the WHO warning – along with some no-hype expert views on what it means in terms of eating healthily.

Red Meat

Beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat

After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, the consumption of red meat was classified as ‘probably’ carcinogenic to humans. The ‘probably’ is based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.

This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

Processed meat

Meat that has been through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes; may also contain, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.

Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans. This classification is based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

The experts concluded that each 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

What is 50 grams of processed Meat?

Approximately:

  • One sausage, or two chipolatas
  • One and a half rashers of back bacon
  • Two hotdogs from a can
  • Two to three slices of ham

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr Kurt Straif, head of the study.

What Does this Mean for Health?

Looks Pretty Bad on the Surface

The classification means that WHO now believes that there is as much evidence that processed meats are carcinogens as there is for tobacco and alcohol.
However, WHO does not assess that the products are equally harmful.

“These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC.

“At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

But No Need to Panic

Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK's epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said:

"This decision doesn't mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.”

"Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn't going to do much harm - having a healthy diet is all about moderation. Overall red and processed meat cause fewer cases of cancer in the UK than some other lifestyle factors.”

What Does it Mean for Your Diet?

Eva Tornberg, professor of Food Technology at Lund University, thinks that WHO should have waited to issue their warning about the meats, because the statement was made based on purely epidemiological studies.

“Meat is a nutritious and non-allergenic food product, with high levels of protein as well high levels of necessary minerals and vitamin B. Making a serious statement like that about such a basic food product will perhaps make people no longer adhere to the warnings”, she said.

Professor Tornberg is currently working with a team at Lund University, conducting an EU-level research project which aims to minimise oxidation in processed meat products. This, according to their hypothesis, will lead to a reduction of colon cancer.

The project involves extracting antioxidants from plants and berries, and then preparing meat products with these antioxidants.

“If this hypothesis proves to be true, it will indicate that the risk of colon cancer can be reduced by eating a balanced diet – in other words, together with meat, eat lots of vegetables and other things that contain antioxidants. In short, the old ‘model plate’ diet could once again prove to be beneficial.”, said Professor Tornberg.

WLR Says

There’s nothing really new in the WHO results. Recommendations to limit processed and red meat for good health have been around for a long time.

Probably just as important is the balance of your diet: the quantity and proportion of fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains included.

The majority of people in the UK do not eat the recommended 5 daily portions of fruit and vegetables. Both are packed with antioxidants and fibre – both have a positive association with protection against cancer and good gut health.

It will be very interesting to see the results of Professor Tornberg’s study, we’ll keep you posted.

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References and Resources

  1. International Agency for Research on Cancer: IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat
  2. Lund University: Sausages with antioxidants from berries to prevent cancer
  3. Cancer Research UK: Processed Meat and Cancer – What You Need to Know
  4. The Lancet (Oncology): Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat
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