The World Cancer Research Fund came to the following conclusion:
"There is strong evidence that ... processed meats are causes of bowel cancer, and that there is no amount of processed meat that can be confidently shown not to increase risk ...
Try to avoid processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami, corned beef and some sausages."
You read that right -- no amount of processed meat is safe.
The reaction of the meat industry was swift, and they promptly accused the report of being erroneous and a tool of the "anti-meat" lobby. Professor Martin Wiseman, project director of the report, replied:
"These insinuations are nothing short of outrageous ... WCRF commissioned the report with money raised from the general public and therefore it was not influenced by any vested interests.
The fact is that our report is the most comprehensive and authoritative review of the evidence that has ever been published and it found convincing evidence that ... processed meat ... increase[s] risk of bowel cancer."
For optimal health, you really want to limit the amount of all processed foods you eat as much as possible. But among processed foods, processed meats may get the prize for biggest health risk.
The latest review of more than 7,000 studies on diet and cancer -- the biggest review of the evidence ever undertaken -- found what many others before it have as well: processed meats increase your risk of cancer, in this case bowel cancer.
What's more, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) concluded that no amount of processed meat is safe so they recommend avoiding all of it, all the time.
Why are Processed Meats So Deadly?
Processed meats are those preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or the addition of chemical preservatives. This includes bacon, ham, pastrami, salami, pepperoni, hot dogs, some sausages and hamburgers (if they have been preserved with salt or chemical additives) and more.
Particularly problematic are the nitrates that are added to these meats as a preservative, coloring and flavoring. The nitrates found in processed meats are frequently converted into nitrosamines, which are clearly associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
It's for this reason that the USDA actually requires adding ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid to bacon cure, as it helps reduces the formation of nitrosamines.
Meat cooked at high temperatures, as many processed meats often are, can also contain as many as 20 different kinds of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs for short. These substances are also linked to cancer.
In terms of HCAs, the worst part of the meat is the blackened section, which is why you should always avoid charring your meat, and never eat blackened sections. Heating meat at high temperatures also appears to increase the formation of nitrosamines, with well-done or burned bacon having significantly more nitrosamines than less well-done bacon.
So at the very least you will want to surely avoid eating hot dogs, bacon or sausages that are charred and very well done.
Many processed meats are also smoked as part of the curing process, and smoking is a well-known cause of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which enter your food during the smoking process.
There may be other factors at play as well, but at the very least it's known that eating processed meats exposes you to at least three cancer-causing substances: nitrates and nitrites (leading to nitrosamines), heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Steep Cancer Risks Revealed
The latest research from WCRF is only the most recent of a slew of evidence linking processed meats to cancer.
A 2007 analysis by WCRF found that eating just one sausage a day can significantly raise your risk of bowel cancer. Specifically, 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily -- about one sausage or three pieces of bacon -- raises the likelihood of the cancer by 20 percent.
Other studies have also found that processed meats increase your risk of:
- Colon cancer by 50 percent
- Bladder cancer by 59 percent
- Stomach cancer by 38 percent
- Pancreatic cancer by 67 percent
And that's not all. Hot dogs, bacon, salami and other processed meats may also increase your risk of diabetes by 50 percent, and lower your lung function and increase your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
People who eat processed meats regularly also tend to eat fewer vegetables than others, which likely only compounds the risks.
How to Make Healthier Meat Choices
The evidence is pretty cut-and-dry: processed meats will raise your cancer risk. So I suggest you keep these foods to a very minimum in your diet, if you choose to eat them at all. Now, if you are going to eat bacon, sausage, ham or so forth once in awhile, here are some tips to make them somewhat less harmful:
- Choose organic meats that are grass-fed or free-range
- Look for "uncured" varieties that contain NO nitrates
- Choose varieties that say 100% beef, 100% chicken, etc. This is the only way to know that the meat is from a single species and does not include byproducts (like chicken skin or chicken fat)
- Avoid any meat that contains MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor or artificial color
- Ideally, purchase sausages and other processed meats from a small, local farmer who you can ask about the ingredients
Again, these are still not ideal as they are still processed, but they are better than the vast majority of processed meats on the market. Now, if you want to eat meat in a truly healthful way (and yes, meat can be, and is, healthy), follow these "rules" for healthful meat consumption:
- The meat should be organic and grass-fed
- It should ideally come from a local farmer (try finding a farmer's market or community-supported agriculture program in your area to do this) who can verify that the products are raised on pasture, without antibiotics and pesticides
- The animals should be allowed to live in their natural habitats, eating their natural diets
- The farmer should be aware of the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat -- and how to use these relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems
Taking it a step further, add homemade spice rubs, herb-enhanced marinades or even fresh blueberries to your meat prior to cooking it. This will impart some health benefits and also cut down on the harmful substances formed.
Even better, use the same spice rubs and marinades, but eat the meat only lightly cooked or raw. Many of the negative health associations of eating meat are related to the fact that the meat is cooked, which creates harmful substances.
You can easily avoid all these problems by eating your meat uncooked. The problem with doing that in our current culture is that most meat is raised under factory farming conditions where the animals are very unhealthy and likely to harbor infections that can harm you.
However, if you can find humanely raised organic meat, then that risk is virtually eliminated.
Again, in order for meat to be its healthiest, it should be organic and grass-fed, and it should be eaten raw or cooked as little as possible. And, it should be a whole cut of meat, such as a roast, chop or steak, as opposed to a processed variety like a hot dog or bacon.