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Meat Products: Carcinogens & Cancer Risks

  • Synopsis: Published: 2015-12-13 - Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as asbestos and tobacco smoking - Thomas C. Weiss (Disabled World).

A carcinogen is defined as any substance, radionuclide, or radiation that is an agent directly involved in causing cancer. Carcinogen exposure can occur from the inhalation, ingestion, or absorption of many different types of substances into our bodies. Carcinogens may increase the risk of cancer by altering cellular metabolism or damaging DNA directly in cells, which interferes with biological processes, and induces the uncontrolled, malignant division, ultimately leading to the formation of tumors. Just some examples of carcinogens include tobacco and tobacco smoke, pesticides, asbestos, radon, and arsenic. You can find a list of currently known carcinogens, substances, chemicals, and products known to cause cancer in humans here.

Main Document

Quote: "Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as asbestos and tobacco smoking, yet this does not mean that they are all equally dangerous."

What is considered to be, 'red meat?' Red meat refers to all mammalian muscle meat to include veal, beef, mutton, lamb, goat and even horse meat.

'Processed meat,' refers to meat that has been transformed through curing, salting, smoking, fermentation or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. The majority of processed meats contain beef or pork, although processed meats might also contain red meats, offal, poultry, or meat by-products such as blood. Examples of processed meats include:

  • Ham
  • Biltong
  • Hot dogs
  • Sausages
  • Beef jerky
  • Corned beef
  • Canned meat
  • Meat-based preparations and sauces

An international advisory committee that met in 2014 recommend red meat and processed meat as high priorities for evaluation by the IARC Monographs Program. The recommendation was based on epidemiological studies suggesting that small increases in the risk of a number of cancers might be associated with high consumption of red meat or processed meat. While the risks are small, they might be important for public health because many people around the world eat meat and meat consumption is increasing in low and middle income countries. Although some health agencies already recommend limiting intake of meat, these recommendations are aimed largely at reducing the risk of additional diseases. With this in mind, it was important for IARC to provide authoritative scientific evidence on the cancer risk associated with consuming red meat and processed meat.

Cooking Meat

Does a person's method of cooking meat change the risk involved? High-temperature cooking methods generate compounds that might contribute to carcinogenic risk, yet their role is not fully understood at this time. So what are the safest methods of cooking meat, such as sautéing, broiling, boiling, or barbecuing?

Cooking at high temperatures, or with food in direct contact with a hot surface or flame, as in pan-frying or barbecuing, produces more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines. There was not enough evidence; however, for the IARC Working Group to reach a conclusion concerning whether the way meat is cooked affects a person's risk of cancer.

Raw Meat

Is eating raw meat safer? There is no information to address this question in relation to cancer risk. The separate question of risk of infection from raw meat consumption must be kept in mind. Red meat was classified as, 'Group 2A,' probably carcinogenic to people; what does this mean exactly? In the instance of red meat, the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer, as well as strong mechanistic evidence. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been noted between exposure to the agent and cancer, but that other explanations for the observations could not be ruled out.

Processed Meat Classification

Processed meat was classified as, 'Group 1,' carcinogenic to people; what does this mean? The category is used when there is enough evidence of carcinogenicity in people. In other words, there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer. The evaluation is usually based upon epidemiological studies showing the development of cancer in people who are exposed. In the instance of processed meat, the classification is based on sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to people. Tobacco smoking and asbestos are also both classified as carcinogenic to people or Group 1. Does this mean the consumption of processed meat is as carcinogenic as tobacco smoking and asbestos? The answer is, 'no.'

Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as asbestos and tobacco smoking, yet this does not mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, instead of assessing the level of risk. So what types of cancers are associated or linked with the consumption of red meat?

The strongest, yet still limited, evidence for an association with eating red meat is for colorectal cancer. There is also evidence of links with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. The IARC Working Group concluded that consuming red meat causes colorectal cancer. An association with stomach cancer was also found, although the evidence is not conclusive.

The Numbers of Cancer Cases Each Year Attributed to Meat Consumption

According to the most recent estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, around 34,000 cancer deaths each year around the world are attributable to diets high in processed meat products. Consuming red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer; however, if the reported associations were proven to be causal, the Global Burden of Disease Project has estimated that diets high in red meat could be responsible for 50,000 cancer deaths each year in the world. The numbers contrast with approximately 1 million cancer deaths each year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600,000 per year due to the consumption of alcohol, as well as 200,000 per year due to air polllution.

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