Processed Meats Linked to Cancer

Processed meats linked to cancer

As you may have recently read, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer has added “Processed meats” to the list of products which are known to cause cancer. In addition, they added “red meat” to a secondary list of products labeled as probably carcinogenic. The report identified the common cancer from this to be colorectal cancer.

There have been some sensationalist headlines and click bait articles to generate attention and as expected barbecue fans have fought back.

Some of the pro meat industry has already responded and some individuals have called this report frivolous. I’ve seen responses like “I don’t care” and “everything gives you cancer.”

I disagree with ignoring the report without some review, as this appears to be a legitimate scientific report from individuals who are not biased. This isn’t a “liberal” or “vegan” sponsored thinly veiled report to try and turn us meat lovers around. At the same time, I don’t think individuals should have knee-jerk reactions to such a report. Let’s review a few details from the report.

The report was generated after processing 800 different studies by 22 experts from 10 different countries. This group has been identifying cancer-causing agents

 “…meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.”

Processed Meats were given a category 1 designation. Processed meats were described as “…meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.” While hot dogs and bacon are used as descriptors in many articles, sausage and beef jerky are also included in the report summary. Along those same lines it seems many of our favorite barbecued meats would also make that group.

There is a quote of interest, “Cooking at high temperatures or with the food in direct contact with a flame or a hot surface, as in barbecuing or pan-frying, produces more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals…” This seems to give a little preference at least to smoking meat as opposed to grilling. It also seems that the more processed the food is, the higher likely hood of concern, due to nitrates and preservatives, so ensuring fresher meats with fewer preservatives may help.

 “Cooking at high temperatures or with the food in direct contact with a flame or a hot surface, as in barbecuing or pan-frying, produces more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals…”

Processed Meats were placed in the highest category, the same category as Formaldehyde, tobacco, Asbestos, and Plutonium. Ouch. It comes down to the consumption levels and this figure: “…estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.” That’s less than 1/8th of a pound, and I can wolf down a lot more than that.

However, if we only look at the more distressing agents that are classed the same as processed meats then the comparison is a bit more frightening than it really is. Other more common items in the same class include air pollution, alcoholic beverages, and wood dust.

Red meat that has not been processed, meats of which include beef as well as pork, lamb, and others, was given a lower category rating of 2a. That class includes DDT and being an occupational hairdresser. That’s quite a spread.

So what is the takeaway from all of this? Well, meat does not seem to be as dangerous as cigarettes, and just like a single cigarette won’t instantly give you cancer, eating a little smoked red meat shouldn’t either. There are Texas pit masters in their 80’s and 90’s out there plugging away, be it good genes or not it is still a nice anecdotal sign, just like the 116 year old woman who eats bacon every day.  However, I think we should take this (and not just with a grain of salt) as a reminder to eat things in moderation. I’m not saying go vegetarian but If you are already chowing down on lots of ‘cue on the weekend, should you really load up on burgers during the week?

The reality is many of us eat foods as bad or worse that barbecue every day. That fast food burger patty with cheese and bacon, deep fried french fries, and soda isn’t doing you any good; Heavily processed meats such as hot dogs and some lunch meats are also something to ease back on consuming. None of that should really be a surprise.

Personally, I rarely buy sausage at a barbecue joint if it isn’t made in house. This is on the expectation that sausage made on site would contain fewer preservatives than commercially made. This is certainly true of mass produced sausage you can get at the grocery store, or those gas station hot dogs. I’ve been cutting down on those lately anyway even though I have an odd attraction to them.

Watch the salts. I am one of those who likes salt on much of my food, and both sausage and many beef rubs contain a lot as well. Much of our store bought food contains it, too; things you may not consider like ketchup and barbecue sauce. The small amount in barbecue sauce though is a far cry from the over 2,000 milligrams of sodium in a half pound of Rudy’s turkey, but you’ll see more on that in an upcoming article regarding the nutrition of our favorite barbecue foods. I’ll just say that a big plate of barbecue and sides will far exceed your recommended daily intake of sodium not to mention fat.

Ease up a bit on the alcohol there, pirate, and watch the cigarettes sparky as they both are on the list as well. It’s possibly bad enough to be consuming one item from the list, but there isn’t a need to check off as many as you can.

Will red meat always be bad?

Could the report itself be flawed? Only time will tell, but Saccharine had been labeled as cancer-causing in the U.S. in 1977 and subsequently changed in 1999 by the I.A.R.C. (moved to class 3) and the U.S. removed warning labels after further study.

Don’t give up on great tasting barbecue, but just eat it in moderation or at least try to balance it out. Mix in a little chicken with that brisket and sausage. Meatless Monday is an easy way to dedicate a day away from those tasty red meats, and many barbecue joints are closed then anyway. Yes the reality is we all are going to die, yet butt cancer probably isn’t the best way to live out your final years.

See ya at the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest and Houston BBQ Throwdown!

-BBQ Bryan


Sources for this article:

Press release:

Red Meat and Processed meat carcinogen Q&A:

Report Q&A:

List of carcinogenic agents:

Downloadable Excel file of carcinogenic agents: