Experts say processed meat poses as big a risk to health as smoking

Sandy Crombie stands by his award-winning sausages. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Sandy Crombie stands by his award-winning sausages. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Eating processed meats such as ham and sausages could increase the risk of cancer, according to global health experts.

A report from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that processed meats could be ranked as Group 1 carcinogen due to their link to bowel cancer – a classification shared with alcohol, smoking and asbestos.

It also found that red meat was “probably” carcinogenic, with associations to bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme.

“In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The IARC considered more than 800 studies in countries with diverse diets and concluded that the risk of bowl cancer rose by 18 per cent by each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily.

The current NHS advice is 
to eat no more than 70g of meat per day, but there is no recommendation for processed meats

Professor Malcolm Dunlop, from the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at Edinburgh University, warned the figures should be considered within the wider context as people who eat high amounts of processed meats were also more likely to smoke.

He said: “It is important not to overreact to these figures. There is an absolutely trivial amount of increase in risk, in comparison with something like smoking which puts the risk up 100s of times.

“There is a link there but cutting out meat would not necessarily protect you from cancer.”

One possible reason for the link is that the compound that gives red meat its colour, known as haem, may damage the lining of the bowel.

Processed meat is believed to be at higher risk as carcinogens can form when meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting.

Professor Tim Key, from Cancer Research UK, welcomed the findings as he said there was “substantial evidence” for a link between meat-eating and bowel cancer.

He added: “Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn’t going to do much harm – having a healthy diet is all about moderation.

“Overall red and processed meat cause fewer cases of cancer in the UK than some other lifestyle factors.”

Sandy Crombie, of the award-winning Crombie’s Butchers in Broughton Street, said: “People have to think about what processed meat is as processed meats are all different.

“The British sausage in general is not what this report is talking about. Continental sausages contain nitrates, British sausages do not.”

lizzy.buchan@edinburghnews.com