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Processed Meats Linked to Cancer, WHO Report Says

Bad news for bacon lovers. Processed meat, such as sausage, hot dogs, ham and bacon, was officially classified today as "carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer," according to a new report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization.

The agency also found that the consumption of red meat, which it defines as "all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat," is "probably carcinogenic to humans" (classified as Group 2A). The finding is based on "limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect." The agency found an association between the consumption of red meat and colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The association puts processed meat in the same ranking (Group 1) as 118 other "agents," including alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes, that the IARC deemed as having the potential to cause cancer. There are four other classifications, Group 2A, "probably carcinogenic;" Group 2B, "possibly carcinogenic;" Group 3, "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity;" and Group 4, "probably not carcinogenic." The IARC has classified 985 agents in total and found only one to be "probably not carcinogenic."

Experts concluded that eating just 50 grams of processed meat a day increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. “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,” says Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The IARC looked at more than 800 studies in the past 20 years that investigated an association between various cancers with the consumption of red or processed meat. The studies spanned "many countries and populations with diverse diets," according to the IARC.

"These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says 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.”

Unsurprisingly, industry groups have reacted with fury to the findings, CNBC reported. The North American Meat Institute has accused the IARC of “dramatic and alarmist over-reach."

“Red and processed meats are among 940 substances reviewed by IARC found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard,’" Barry Carpenter, North American Meat Institute president, told CNBC. “Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer.”

Other organizations, such as the World Cancer Research Fund warns that there is "strong evidence that eating a lot of [red and processed meat] increases your risk of bowel cancer." And the National Healthy Society Choices' website says that "evidence shows that there is probably a link between eating red and processed meat and the risk of bowel cancer. People who eat a lot of these meats are at higher risk of bowel cancer than those who eat small amounts."

However, one expert (via The Independent), emeritus fellow at the Institute of Food Research Dr. Ian Johnson, cautions against putting the risk on the same level as that from tobacco smoke:

"Although there is epidemiological evidence for a statistically significant association between processed meat consumption and bowel cancer, it is important to emphasize that the size of the effect is relatively small, and the mechanism is poorly defined.

"It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around 20-fold."

Friends of the Earth's senior food campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, had this to say:

 "This should be a wake-up call that our diets urgently need to change. Evidence shows that high meat diets not only harm our health, they damage our environment too. Experts have warned that unless we eat less meat globally, we will fail to meet our climate change targets. Polls show that consumers are willing to eat less meat, and now this research should shake the Government into bold action. The government should do more to help people access healthy, sustainable diets, with less and better quality meat."

And David Wallinga, a physician who writes for NRDC, said the finding shows "Americans' love affair with meat" has a "supersized impact on public health." He adds, "It would not be good medicine to wait longer before strongly advising the public to eat less red meat and especially less processed meat."

"Bottom line: Eat less and better meat," says Wallinga. "Better for you, better for the planet."

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