Processed and red meats linked to bowel cancer

piece of salami and a knife

A New World Health Organisation study linking processed and red meats to cancer highlights the benefits of eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, Cancer Council Australia said today.

The review, by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, has found that consuming processed meats (such as bacon, salami and ham) is a cause of bowel cancer and that red meat in general is probably carcinogenic to humans.

It follows ground-breaking research released by Cancer Council Australia earlier this month that estimated more than 2600 bowel cancers diagnosed in Australia in 2010 were attributable to processed and red meat consumption.

Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, Kathy Chapman, says red and processed meats are associated with around one in six bowel cancers diagnosed in Australia.

“It might be the high fat content, the charring in the cooking process or big meat eaters missing out on the protective benefits of plant-based foods – or a combination of these factors,” Chapman says.

“Whatever the mechanism, eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains can help you to moderate your intake of processed and red meats and can also help to protect against cancer.”

Chapman says Cancer Council supports the National Health and Medical Research Council’s recommendation that people ate no more than 65 to 100 grams of cooked red meat, three-to-four times a week.

She says lean red meat is a source of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein, but heavily processed meat is nutrient poor by comparison.

UNSW Professor Bernard Stewart, a scientific adviser to Cancer Council Australia, chaired the IARC working group that undertook the review of the evidence.

“We looked at more than 1000 studies in order to provide clear, evidence-based information to health organisations and consumers,” Prof Stewart says.

“The assessment should help make Australians more aware of the cancer risks associated with long-term excess red meat and processed meat consumption.”

Prof Stewart says the evidence does not support complete abstinence from red meat.

“We aren’t recommending a ban on bacon or taking the beef off the barbecue altogether,” he says.

“But this latest advice should help make Australians more aware of the cancer risks associated with long-term excess red meat and processed meat consumption.”

Chapman says people can also reduce their risk of bowel cancer by being more physically active, maintaining a healthy body weight and not smoking.

She says anyone aged 50 and over is urged to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.


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