In 2015, the planet lost its collective mind after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed meats would be classified as a group 1 carcinogen – as bad for you as cigarettes and asbestos when it comes to cancer risk.
Several years on, the world’s love of bacon – and other processed meats such as ham, hot dogs and salami – has stayed strong, despite the WHO’s warnings.
So, does eating meat cause cancer?
Advanced Sports Dietitian Lisa Middleton has taken a renewed look at the findings and says moderation is key.
“The WHO research on meat and cancer risk found that for every 50g (1.8 oz) portion of processed meat per day, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 18 percent. But this doesn’t mean you have an 18 percent chance of getting cancer – it means that you potentially have 1.18 times the chance compared to someone who does not eat any processed meat.”
So, while this risk is low compared to that posed by cigarette smoking – which can be 20 times the chance compared to a non-smoker – Lisa says the risks associated with processed meat still need to be respected. “A hot dog at the football occasionally is probably not too risky. But eating bacon for breakfast, ham for lunch and red meat for dinner every day may not be such a great idea.”
The WHO report was not completely out of the blue – for many years researchers have indicated a potential link between nitrates in the preservatives used in processed meats with cancer risk. “There is also evidence that fresh red meat that is ‘blackened’ through grilling or barbecuing creates by-products that may have a carcinogenic effect,” Lisa says.
In the years since the WHO report, at least one UK manufacturer has introduced a nitrate-free bacon product, while other manufacturers around the world claim their products to be “low-nitrate.”
Whether your shopping is driven by health or price, the important thing to remember is that if you eat a piece of bacon or burned meat from the BBQ, it doesn’t mean you will develop colorectal cancer. But if you eat these meats a lot, you could be increasing your risk. “Cancer is a multifactorial illness, and not all people exposed to the same potential risks will develop cancer,” Lisa adds.
Meat-free Mondays across all Centr meal plans (regular, vegetarian, pescatarian and vegan) are a great way to give your body a break, increase your intake of plant-based foods and discover a varied and delicious range of alternatives. Lisa has some other practical tips to help lower your risk:
1. Minimize intake of processed, cured and smoked meats
For instance: Bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs, beef jerky, canned meat.
If you are purchasing processed meats, look for products that don’t contain nitrates.
2. Barbecue wisely
Don’t eat burned or blackened red meat.
Eat red meat in small portions, according to individual nutrition needs.
3. Try alternatives
Choose other protein-rich foods such as fish, chicken, dairy, eggs, tofu, nuts and legumes instead of red meat.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and wholegrains.
Eat less processed foods in general.
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