WHO declares processed meat carcinogenic

The World Health Organization on Monday declared that eating processed meat may cause cancer and said that unprocessed red meat may also be carcinogenic.
Oct. 26, 2015

Dr. Lindsey Davis, a medical oncologist with the University of Colorado Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, said the news isn’t surprising but it’s another reason why people over the age of 50 should have a colonoscopy.

“In reviewing the study, I think the evidence is strong that there is some association, specifically with processed meat, but also potentially red meat as a potential cause of cancer,’’ Davis said.

The report says that eating 50 grams of processed meat each day, about two slices of ham, may increase the risk of colon cancer over a person’s lifetime by 18 percent.

The WHO says processed meat is any type of meat that is salted, cured or smoked to enhance its flavor or preserve it. Processed meat is generally pork or beef, though it may also contain poultry.

Davis said the strongest data in the study is the potential for colorectal cancer.

“The important take away from it is that we now have this link, but the study doesn’t provide us with data about how much is too much; how much is ok? It doesn’t give us any guidelines about dietary recommendations,’’ Davis said.

She points out that the study reinforces what physicians have been saying for years about eating a balanced diet.

“A well-balanced diet; a diet in which moderation is the key,’’ Davis said. “There’s always been a suspicion that red meats and processed meats have been linked to cancer cause. And I think this has just given us more data to support that. It’s given us more confirmation about what we’ve always suspected.’’

Davis said there is no reason to be frightened by the WHO’s finding. She said it reinforces the need for colorectal screening.

“All adults, age 50 and above, should have colorectal screening. I think that’s the biggest takeaway from today because we all eat red meat, and we all eat processed meats to certain degrees,’’ Davis said.

She said that the study places processed meats and red meat in the same category as alcohol and tobacco.

“I think the degree with which we see those carcinogens linked to cancer is much greater than what we see with meat. I do think it goes back to all of the information that we have today – that moderation really is the key.’’

The University of Colorado Cancer Center in Denver is one of 45 elite Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the entire country. The center is known worldwide for developing and setting new standards in the treatment of many types of cancer.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.