New research: Processed and red meats pose a cancer risk

Should you stop eating processed and red meat immediately? We investigate.

15 April 2016
by Karen Nel

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) caused quite a stir in October last year when they announced that processed meats like salami, ham, biltong and bacon all cause cancer – and that red meat probably does too.

The World Health Organization's "Bacon-gate" 

The IARC is a branch of the World Health Organisation (WHO) that consults with scientific experts to identify things that can cause cancer. The panel that worked on the recent statement regarding processed meats and red meats consulted more than 800 scientific studies worldwide to make its recommendation. 

The IARC uses a five-level scale to classify things that may cause cancer:

  • Group 1: Carcinogenic, that is, causes cancer (this group also includes tobacco and asbestos)
  • Group 2A: Probably causes cancer
  • Group 2B: Possibly causes cancer
  • Group 3: Can’t tell – not enough evidence
  • Group 4: Doesn’t cause cancer. 

According to the IARC, processed meat falls into group 1, and red meat into group 2A. 

The statement, which was aptly dubbed “Bacon-gate”, was quickly pounced on by the news media, with headlines warning that bacon and hot dogs cause cancer, says the Cancer Association of South Africa’s (CANSA) health specialist, Professor Michael Herbst. “The WHO subsequently released a statement to clarify the fact that, although processed meat is a group 1 carcinogen, all the substances in this group are not equally dangerous – some [such as tobacco and asbestos] are more carcinogenic than others,” he says. 

Do processed and red meats cause cancer fatalities? 

Professor Herbst provides these statistics from the IARC report to create proper context: “According to the most recent estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organisation, about 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat.

“Eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer. However, if the reported associations were proven to be causal, the Global Burden of Disease Project has estimated that diets high in red meat could be responsible for 50 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide.

“These numbers contrast with about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600 000 per year due to alcohol consumption, and more than 200 000 per year due to air pollution.”

Is bacon totally off-limits?

So what is the bottom line when it comes to eating red and processed meat? Follow CANSA’s long-standing guidelines and try to reduce the amount of red meat that you eat, because it has been linked to the development of cancer, cautions Professor Herbst. “Also avoid, as far as possible, the consumption of processed meats because of the strong links between consuming processed meats and the development of colorectal cancer. But, having an occasional three slices of bacon in the morning does not mean you will have cancer by the time you go to bed,” says Professor Herbst.

Cooking methods matter

Another important factor to consider is how you prepare the meat that you eat. “Very high cooking temperatures, such as those generated when we pan-fry or braai meat, can create cancer-causing chemicals in the meat that are not present in uncooked meats,” says Professor Herbst. 

This doesn’t, however, mean that you can never braai again. Instead, be health-savvy when you braai and follow these guidelines:

  • Always clean the braai grid thoroughly before you use it to ensure that there is no charred residue on the grid.
  • Avoid direct exposure of meat to flames.
  • Try par-cooking meats in the microwave before placing them on the braai for a shorter period of time.
  • Choose leaner cuts of meat. Very fatty meats result in lots of smoke, which is potentially carcinogenic.
  • Try to braai for shorter periods of time (that is, opt for medium, rather than well done) and turn the meat frequently.

For more info

Cancer Association of South Africa 

IARC report


Read More: Cancer Super Section