WHO has announced that processed meats like sausages, bacon and ham cause cancer. Their report has officially classified these processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is the cancer research agency for WHO and it has been investigating the cancer causing properties of processed and red meats. IARC’s working group comprising of 22 experts from 10 countries have gone over 800 studies that examined whether processed meats cause cancer. Based on their study the IARC has come to the conclusion that processed meat does cause cancer. Eating as little as 50 grams of processed meat daily can increase the risk of cancer by 18 per cent. More than others it is red meat that has strong evidence as being carcinogenic say researchers. The panel defined processed meat as those “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.”
This news has caused concern all over the world particularly in countries that consume more meat than vegetables and other foods. The report says that eating too much processed meats could cause colon cancer and even affect the prostrate and pancreas. The report has been published in ‘The Lancet Oncology.’ However, not everyone has accepted the report and some have even dismissed it as being inconclusive. Some experts have even gone so far as to say that even though great amounts of money have been spent the world over yet there is no conclusive evidence about which foods cause cancer and which don’t.
The fact that processed meats has been listed along with cigarettes and arsenic and asbestos as cancer causing substances has shocked the agricultural and meat processing industry. Some countries are even wondering whether this could lead to new dietary and label guidelines with warnings that the contents of the packet could be injurious to heath just like on cigarettes and alcohol labels. Since red meat contains large amounts of fat and the compound that gives meat its red colour could be responsible for damage to the bowel lining. Also the preservation techniques are considered to be responsible for the raised levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
Over the years several factors have been classified for their cancer causing properties by the WHO such as coffee and sunlight, just to serve as examples.
The agency has several classifications ranging from “probably carcinogenic,” “possibly carcinogenic,” or “not classifiable” and finally “probably not carcinogenic” and processed meat has been classified as “probably carcinogenic,” from evidence through observational studies. Since the agency has classified that the consumption of red meat was “probably carcinogenic to humans” has also sent out a message that could confuse consumers. The processed meat industry is of the opinion that such a statement could send the wrong signals if it is not accompanied by specifics and more details.
In India red meat consumption according to the FAO is merely 10 per cent and the lowest in the world. In India 80 per cent of the processed meat products are chicken products as that is what Indians prefer. The meat processing industry is just emerging with Venky’s and Godrej Yummiez, Al Kabeer, Meatzza, Sumeru being the dominant players. It is estimated to be only around Rs.500 crore but this news could cause a setback. The processed meat industry also argue that red meat is a food is rich in proteins, iron and certain vitamins and zinc and so it is very much a part of balanced diet. Experts from around the world are of the opinion that the risk of cancer from processed meats is several notches lower than the risk from smoking and alcohol consumption.
Several doctors have welcomes the report and have said that colorectal cancer is the most common cancer and this report would help consumers make a healthy dietary choice. The Cancer Society advises consumers to choose fish, poultry and beans over red meats. It their preference is for red meat then it is advisable to select lean meat with small portions.