Red meat cancer risk to be revealed by WHO

BaconImage copyrightThinkstock

Global health experts are to give guidance later on the possible health risks of red and processed meats.

The World Health Organization will reveal whether some meats should be classed as carcinogens.

The agency’s cancer body has been reviewing evidence on whether red and processed meats increase the risk of cancers such as bowel cancer.

UK advice says eating a lot of red and processed meat probably increases the risk of bowel cancer.

But the Department of Health says red meat can be part of a healthy diet.

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Red and processed meat

Red meat includes beef, lamb, and pork.

Red meat looks darker than white meat like poultry because of higher levels of haemoglobin and myoglobin, the iron and oxygen-binding proteins you find in blood and muscle.

Processed meat includes bacon, sausages, salami and ham.

Is meat good for you?

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and B vitamins.

Advice from the Department of Health is to consume healthier meat or meat products, such as lean cuts of meat and lean mince and cut down on processed meat.

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According to the latest survey of the British diet, the average adult eats around 71g of red meat a day.

Dr Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, said the agency would consider the report once it was published.

“In the meantime, official advice is that people should consume no more than 70g a day on average – for example, a couple of sausages or rashers of bacon.

“Our surveys show that many of us are eating too much red and processed meat which may be linked to an increased risk in colorectal cancer.”

He said red meats can also be high in saturated fat and salt, which many people also need to cut down.

Commenting on media reports on Friday that foods such as bacon, burgers and sausage will be deemed a cancer risk, Dr Ian Johnson of the Institute of Food Research said there was evidence of a link between processed meat consumption and bowel cancer, but “the size of the effect is relatively small, and the mechanism is poorly defined”.

He added: “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.”

Prof Robert Pickard of the University of Cardiff, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, which is funded by the meat industry, said: “No one food gives you cancer.”

He added: “The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.”

Since 1971, more than 900 agents, including lifestyle factors and chemicals, have been evaluated by expert scientists for the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the WHO.

More than 400 have been identified as carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, or possibly carcinogenic to humans.

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