The Link Between Meat and Cancer: MSK Experts Explain the Headlines

By Julie Grisham,

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A platter of different processed meats

An agency within the World Health Organization classified processed meats as carcinogens — cancer-causing agents. These high-fat, high-calorie foods contribute to obesity, which is linked to an increased risk of cancer. Also, foods high in preservatives like processed meats have been linked to gastrointestinal cancers for years. But the increased risk is modest.

  • An international cancer agency classified processed meat as a carcinogen.
  • It also classified red meat as a probable carcinogen.
  • The link between foods high in preservative salts and cancer risk has been known for years. 
  • The increased cancer risk from processed meats is modest.
  • Keeping a healthy, balanced diet is most important.

You’ve probably seen the attention-grabbing headlines this week: Bacon causes cancer! But what’s the real story behind the news?

Earlier this week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer arm of the World Health Organization, announced that it had classified processed meat as a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, “based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” It also classified red meat as a probable carcinogen based on limited evidence linking its consumption to cancer and “strong mechanistic support supporting a carcinogenic effect.”

In the report, a group of 22 experts from ten countries concluded that every 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten per day — the equivalent of a hot dog or two or three strips of bacon — increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Experts from Memorial Sloan Kettering put this news into perspective.

“This announcement didn’t come as a big surprise to most of us,” says MSK gastroenterologist Robin Mendelsohn. “We’ve known for a long time that obesity is associated with cancer, so there’s a direct link between eating high-fat, high-calorie foods like meat and an increased cancer risk.”

Medical oncologist Clifford Hudis, Chief of MSK’s Breast Cancer Medicine Service, Vice President for Government Relations, and Chief Advocacy Officer, adds that foods high in preservative salts, such as processed meats, have been associated with gastrointestinal cancers for more than 100 years. He also notes that the refrigerator, by allowing us to eat things that use less of these specific salts, contributed to a decline in stomach cancer in the last century.

In addition, many processed meats like sausage and ham are smoked, which may further increase the number of carcinogenic compounds in them.

For other, nonprocessed red meat, the mechanism by which eating them may lead to cancer is not entirely clear, Dr. Mendelsohn says, but many of these foods also tend to be high in fat and calories.

Speaking about the IARC findings, Dr. Hudis explains, “an 18 percent increased risk is considered real but modest from a public-health standpoint, compared to cigarettes and tobacco, which increase the risk of lung cancer 800 percent or more. Some of the elevated risk may reflect the association of meat consumption with increased weight.”

“Given that much larger increases in risk are seen with tobacco as one example,” he says, “red meat is not the biggest issue. There are great reasons to avoid meat, including its high calorie content. The global issue we face is rising rates of obesity.”  And like tobacco use, obesity is a modifiable risk factor for cancer, which means that people may be able to avoid increased risk by maintaining a healthy weight throughout their life.

“Obesity will soon replace tobacco as the leading modifiable risk factor for cancer, at least in Western countries, ” Dr. Hudis says, noting a policy statement issued by the American Society of Clinical Oncology earlier this year.

The bottom line: Experts agree that the most important thing to focus on is a healthy, balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as exercising regularly and keeping your weight under control. A diet low in meat can be an easy way to achieve this goal, says Dr. Hudis.

“Anytime you choose to eat something healthy, that’s better, but I like to eat a steak or a hot dog once in a while, and that’s OK. Everything in moderation,” says Dr. Mendelsohn.


What time frame is "once in a while"? I don't think it's safe to smoke a cigarette "once in a while", therefore.....

Thank you for your question. We forwarded it to Dr. Mendelsohn, who said that nobody really knows the answer to that question, but she noted that the WHO did point out that their report did NOT mean that meat and tobacco are equally dangerous. In addition, she says, meat, unlike tobacco, can provide nutritional benefit as a source of protein, iron, B12, and other nutrients.

How about eggs?

Harsha, the IARC report did not focus on eggs. As the MSK doctors state in this article, the most important thing to focus on is a healthy, balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as exercising regularly and keeping your weight under control. Thank you for your comment.

i have gleeson 6 prostate cancer and I need to consult with a doctor

Do nitrate free processed foods fall into the category of foods that are cured with preservative salts or is it safe to assume that nitrate free bacon. And hotdogs carry less of a risk?

Dr. Mendelsohn says that people should be cautious with brands that say "nitrate free." Though they may not add nitrates, there are naturally occurring nitrates mostly from plants, which theoretically portend the same risk. Thank you for your comment.

on 12/15 a CT showed a new 4.5cm width x4.5cm AP x 3.9cm length enhancing mass within the spleen, the spleen itself is normal.
on 02/16 a PET/CT the neoplasm is unchanged in size compared to 12/15.
Is this definitely cancer? do i have to get my spleen removed?

Dear Y N, we are not able to offer specific medical advice on our blog. If you would like to make an appointment with one of our specialists, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-225-2225. Thank you for reaching out to us.

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