Processed meats like ham and bacon are a level 1 carcinogen according to the World Health Organization


In a blow to the meat industry and meat lovers, today the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer Working Group published a paper in the Lancet outlining that processed red meat is a level 1 (definite) carcinogen, and red meat is a level 2A (probable) carcinogen.  To give you some perspective, other compounds in the level 1 carcinogen group include tobacco, asbestos, arsenic, and alcohol.

Curing meat produces N-nitroso compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) that are carcinogenic.  The type of iron found in red meat, haem iron, helps NOC’s form in the digestive tract.  Cooking meat at high temperatures (like barbecue, grilling, or pan-frying) produces heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and PAH, which are toxic to your DNA.  The working group analyzed studies from around the world looking at connections between meat consumption and cancer.  The most commonly studied cancer was colorectal cancer.  Overall, there was a 17% increased risk of colorectal cancer per 100 grams of red meat eaten per day and an 18% increased risk of colorectal cancer per 50 grams of processed meat eaten per day.  Positive associations were also found between processed meat and stomach cancer, and red meat and prostate and pancreatic cancer (which is one of the most deadly).

Of course, the meat industries are speaking out against the statement, very publicly.  In nearly every news article published today, there was some representative of the meat industry commenting.  Check it out:

-The industry body the Meat Advisory Panel said “avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer” and said the focus should be alcohol, smoking and body weight. –BBC

-“It was clear, sitting in the IARC meeting, that many of the panellists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data,” said Betsy Booren, the institute’s vice-president of scientific affairs. “They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.” –The Guardian

-“Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health,” writes Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute, in a statement on the new WHO classification. –NPR

-“The North American Meat Institute scoffed at the report, saying it ignored “numerous” studies showing no link between meat and cancer. ‘Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard,”  institute spokeswoman Betsy Booren said. “Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer.'” –USA Today

Even the director of the IARC, Christopher Wild, Ph.D., said the findings support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat but stressed that red meat has nutritional value – namely that it contains protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins.  As Dr. Wild should know, plant-based foods contain these essential nutrients too, but without the risk of getting cancer or heart disease or diabetes – in fact, most are PROTECTIVE from cancer and heart disease and diabetes.  In medicine, there’s a saying about ordering additional studies sometimes that you don’t think are absolutely necessary but without them, you could lose a malpractice lawsuit – “cover your ass.” Do you think he’s trying to save his from the powerful meat industry?

I’ve written in earlier posts that vegetable-based protein is healthier for you and abundant, and you will get enough protein if you eat a well-balanced plant-based diet.  Plants contain iron too – spinach, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, tofu, dark chocolate – and not the haem iron that is linked with colorectal cancer. Zinc is present in lots of plant sources – spinach, flax seeds, kidney beans, lima beans, garlic, chickpeas, brown rice, mushrooms … the list goes on and on. As for Vitamin B12, so many foods are fortified with it these days, and you need about 3 micrograms per day, which can easily be obtained.

The nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (, published this infographic which illustrates the hazards of processed meat well:

Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, Grosse Y, El Ghissassi F, Benbrahim-Tallaa L, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat The Lancet Oncology, Published online 26 October 2015;