Dr LeLeiko has disclosed no financial relationship relevant to this commentary. This commentary does not contain a discussion of an unapproved/investigative use of a commercial product/device.

In October 2015, 22 scientists from 10 countries evaluated the results from about 800 studies on the relationship between cancer and processed and unprocessed meat. The meeting was held in Lyon, France as part of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO). Although the working group’s conclusions have been summarized, the full report is in press. In 2014, a similar group had recommended that red meat and processed meat be evaluated as possible causes of cancer based on the increasing consumption of these foods worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies linking its consumption to developing colorectal cancer.

Processed meat was classified as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on evidence from epidemiological studies. Tobacco smoking and asbestos are similarly classified but they are not equally dangerous. The IARC assessment does not assess level of risk, just that an association is or is not established.

The WHO, referencing the Global Burden of Disease Project, estimates that about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to diets high in processed meat. They also estimated that smoking causes 1,000,000 deaths, alcohol 600,000 deaths, and air pollution about 200,000 deaths worldwide annually.

The IARC group acknowledged nutritional benefits from red meat. With regard to vegetarian diets, advantages and disadvantages were noted. Because there may be many other variables involved, no substantive comment was offered regarding the health benefits/risks of switching to a vegetarian diet. Common examples of processed meats include frankfurters, sausage, ham, smoked and canned meat preparations, and commercially prepared meat sauces.

No data were available on the relative risks for different groups or ages of people. Nor were there adequate data regarding cooking methods or temperatures (including consumption of raw meat.)

The risk of colorectal cancer associated with consumption of processed meat was estimated (based on 10 studies) as increasing by 18% for every 50 gram portion eaten daily.

We are constantly provided with “information” about what constitutes the best (or worst) diets. It now seems prudent to strongly advise the elimination or at least moderation of the ingestion of processed meats for our patients.

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