“WHO” says Processed Meats Cause Cancer: The Facts Behind the Hype

I am sure that most of you know about the WHO (World Health Organization) announcement several weeks ago classifying processed meats as carcinogens. Processed meats are defined as meats that have been cured, salted, smoked or fermented to preserve flavor and extend shelf life. Bacon, sausage, hot dogs and lunch meat fall into this category. Since this announcement, a plethora of articles, memes, analyses, videos and debates have ensued. I’ve seen rebuttals, denial, jokes and plenty of disagreement. My goal is to take a step back and examine the facts.

Photo by anokarina CC BY 2.0

Let’s first look at why this announcement evoked such an emotional response. Food is not simply nutrition or fuel for the body. Food reflects culture, tradition, family and habit. We celebrate with food and mark holidays with food. Food is personal. The other point to consider is that people generally do not like to be told bad news about something they may be doing on a regular basis, especially if it is something they really enjoy. As parents or caregivers, we purchase or prepare food for those in our charge. It just doesn’t feel good to hear this information about food we may be providing for our loved ones.

The WHO asked 22 scientists to review over 800 research studies from around the world in an attempt to make sense of the data and come up with some answers. Does processed meat cause cancer? How many people will get cancer? Would they have gotten cancer anyway? How much meat does one need to eat in order to increase their risk? Will moderate consumption still cause cancer? What is moderate consumption?—once a day, once a week? There are multiple factors at play. Humans do not live in a “vacuum”. It can be really hard to tease out the data. It can be hard, but it is possible. Only after extremely careful analysis did the WHO formulate their recommendation. Processed meats received a “Group 1” categorization as a carcinogen.

The Group 1 classification of processed meat, along with tobacco and asbestos, does not mean the level of risk of getting cancer from asbestos or cigarettes is the same as the risk from consuming processed meat. The grouping refers to the strength of the evidence, not the level of risk. In fact, a much larger percentage of tobacco smokers will get cancer as a result of smoking than the percentage of people who will develop cancer from processed meat consumption. Your lifetime risk of colon cancer is approximately 5%. Consumption of 50g per day (about 1.5 oz.) of processed meats increases that risk to about 6%. So the risk is much lower, but the evidence linking processed meats to cancer is just as strong.

Consuming processed meats on a regular basis will increase your cancer risk. They are not health foods, but then most of us didn’t consider them health foods to begin with. And while very occasional consumption is not likely to give you cancer, the truth is that scientists do not know what constitutes a “safe level”. Is this enough to warrant a change in your behavior? Should you reduce or eliminate processed meats in your diet? The answer to that question may be different for different people. My goal is not to tell you what to do, but to simply give you the tools you need to make an informed decision.