The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization, has classified processed meat as a cancer causing agent (carcinogen), and red meat as a probable carcinogen. This conclusion was based on evaluation of the world’s scientific research on the carcinogenic role of red and processed meat consumption by an expert panel of scientists convened as part of IARC’s Monograph Program which seeks to identify the causes of human cancer. Of note, Marjorie McCullough, ScD, RD, American Cancer Society Strategic Director of Nutritional Epidemiology, attended the IARC evaluation as an observer.
Below is a comment from Susan Gapstur, MPH, PhD, Vice President of Epidemiology on the news:
“The conclusion that processed meat (e.g., hot dogs, bacon, sausage, deli meats, etc.) causes cancer and that red meat (e.g., beef, pork, lamb) is a probable cause of cancer may come as a surprise to a public that for years has relied heavily on red and processed meats as a part of its diet.
“The conclusions for both red and processed meats are based primarily on evidence showing an increased risk of colorectal cancer, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and among women in the U.S. For red meat, there was also evidence of increased risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer.
“In general, the IARC conclusion is consistent with the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF)/American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Continuous Update Project which found the evidence ‘convincing’ that diets high in red meat and processed meat are associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer.
“In fact, classifying processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans is not unexpected. Indeed, based on earlier scientific studies, including findings from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, the American Cancer Society has recommended limiting consumption of red and processed meat specifically since 2002. Our most recent Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention, which were published in 2012 (CA Cancer J Clin 2012;62:30-67), emphasize the importance of choosing fish, poultry, or beans as alternatives to processed and red meat, and for those who choose to eat red meat, selecting lean cuts and eating smaller portions is important.
“The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity also recommend preparing meat, poultry and fish by baking, broiling or poaching, rather than frying or charbroiling to reduce the formation of carcinogens during the cooking process.
“The IARC conclusion also provides support for the United States 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee’s recommendation to consume a healthful dietary pattern that is ‘lower in red and processed meat.’
“This is an important step in helping individuals make healthier dietary choices to reduce their risk of colorectal cancer in particular.”