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Processed meat, red meat and cancer

“Processed meats cause cancer” and “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes” have hit the news following an announcement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on October 26.

If you’re wondering what counts as processed meat, think of any meat that has been altered through salting, curing, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or preservation. Examples are hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, canned meat—and bacon.

The IARC is the World Health Organization’s cancer research group, which examined the cancer causing risks of eating processed and red meats. The IARC announcement explains that their findings stem from a review of hundreds of studies on the topic. They concluded that the evidence is strong enough to classify processed meat as cancer causing. Red meat was also identified as “probably” causing cancer. Eating 50 grams of processed meat every day increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. Compare that with a 2000 per cent increased risk of developing lung cancer if you are a daily smoker. 

The bottom line is—our risk for colorectal cancer climbs a little when you eat processed meat; and it probably also increases when we eat too much red meat. So, we should limit consumption of processed and red meats.  

The truth is, this is not new information. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that meat from all sources be limited to 1 to 3 servings per day, and to try to choose lean meats that are low in sodium. At the highest end, this would be equal to the size of two and a half decks of cards. In addition, Canadians are encouraged to eat more plant-based meat alternatives such as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds and to eat at least two servings of fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout or herring) each week.

Focusing on eating a larger proportion of vegetables, fruits and whole grains on a daily basis is a far more positive angle than being afraid of occasionally eating processed meats. Using this strategy, meat intake naturally declines, as more plate space is reserved for plant-based foods. 

For more information check out:

World Health Organization (WHO) 

Q & A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat


EatRight Ontario

Lowering Your Risk for Colorectal Cancer


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