The Australian cancer expert who chaired the World Health Organisation (WHO) committee which says processed meat can give you cancer says he will continue to eat salami, bacon and ham.
Professor Bernard Stewart, chief scientific advisor for the Cancer Council Australia, chaired the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) committee which looked at 800 studies from around the world and concluded there was “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.
Professor Stewart said the findings should not cause a complete boycott of the processed meats, rather that moderation should be applied.
“My personal recommendation is to acknowledge that I too like ham and salami and bacon. I also like a steak occasionally,” he told ABC News 24.
“The recommendation is not to abandon any of these foods, it is to reduce the intake.
“For those who are eating these foods on a very regular basis, let’s say more than five days a week, possibly every day, it is those people who will probably be the focus of dietary guidelines suggesting that they replace some of that red and processed meat by a higher intake of poultry, fish and possibly even, dare I say it, a vegetarian meal every now and then.”
Professor Stewart said experts were still not sure what element of processed meat led to an increased cancer risk.
“So far as we know it is not so much an agent that is used in the processing, it is the very nature of the meat giving rise to chemicals in the cause of digestion,” he said.
“Since this worry had been raised decades ago, the levels of particular chemicals in processed meat, like sodium nitrite, have been systematically reduced.
“The risk appears inherent insofar as there can be inevitable changes in the digestive tract when processed meat is eaten, giving rise to chemicals capable of causing cancer.
“This was a comprehensive review of the data, the like of which has never been undertaken before,” Professor Stewart continued.
“When someone says an agent specifically causes cancer, the community is more concerned with cancer than any other disease, so you’d expect a response.
“But it’s also not (in) the business of scares or the causation of undue anxiety.”
The IARC added processed meat to the same group 1 category of cancer-causing agents as tobacco smoke and asbestos.
For unprocessed red meat — beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse or goat — the review found “strong” evidence of a cancer-causing effect, but not sufficient to place it in the same group of cancer-causing agents.
Instead, unprocessed red meat was classified as a “probable” carcinogen in its group 2A list that also contains glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.
The agency cited research attributing about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide to diets high in processed meat.
As for red meat — if the suspected link were to be confirmed — it would account for some 50,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide.