Is Processed Meat a Carcinogen?


The World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration on processed meat as a carcinogen sent shockwaves through global health communities. In 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meat as Group 1, a category reserved for substances with sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. This move raised significant concerns among consumers and industries alike, given the widespread consumption and production of processed meat products. This essay will delve into the WHO’s classification, explore the scientific basis behind it, and discuss the potential implications for public health and food industries worldwide.

International Agency for Research on Cancer Report W.R. T Meat Consumption

Consuming processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans (Group I),” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO), whereas consuming red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).” According to the report, these two types of meat are distinguished:

Meat that has undergone salting, curing, fermenting, smoking, or other methods to increase flavor or preserve it is processed meat.

Unprocessed mammalian muscle meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat flesh, is red meat. After reviewing more than 800 research, the IARC Working Group, which comprises 22 scientists from ten different nations, categorized red meat as probably carcinogenic and consumption of processed meat as carcinogenic. The majority of conclusions were based on the colorectal cancer evidence. Additionally, the research found a link between eating processed meat and stomach cancer and a link between eating red meat and pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Causes of Carcinogenic

N-nitroso compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are examples of potentially cancer-causing (carcinogenic) substances that can occur during the curing of meat (e.g., by adding nitrates or nitrites) or smoking of meat. Additionally, meat includes heme iron, which can aid in synthesizing cancer-causing NOCs.

In addition to producing carcinogenic compounds like heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and PAHs, cooking, especially high-temperature cooking that involves cooking meat over a flame (such as pan-frying, grilling, and barbecuing), can also cause some types of cancer. Red meat is “probably” carcinogenic, according to the IARC Working Group, yet numerous investigations found no conclusive link.

Can you elaborate on the likelihood that it causes cancer?

More red meat eating has been linked, although not always, to an increased risk of colorectal cancer in extensive population studies. The IARC working group concluded that red meat is probably carcinogenic even though the results of this research were not consistent. Some media publications, especially those from the meat industry, advocate eating red meat as a balanced diet.

While studies have shown that eating a lot of red meat can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, as well as your risk of dying from those diseases when compared to other good sources of protein, like poultry, fish, or legumes, red meat does have nutritional value because it is rich in protein, minerals, and vitamins (like vitamin B12). Thus, a lot of data points to a diet limited to red meat as the most nutritious.

Processed meat is a Group 1 carcinogen according to the IARC/WHO, the same classification as asbestos and cigarette use. According to specific media sources, consuming bacon or hot dogs is as harmful as smoking.

Role of IARC and WHO

Long-term red or processed meat intake has been linked to several health problems, including an increased risk of colorectal and other cancers. In light of this, the conclusions reached by the IARC Working Group are congruent with our current understanding. However, there has been a lot of uncertainty due to how the media has covered last week’s IARC/WHO release. Thus the following has to be clarified:

IARC or WHO does not evaluate the amount of danger

IARC does not evaluate the amount or the magnitude of risk (quantitative assessment), but it does identify hazards (qualitative evaluation), i.e., if an agent can cause cancer. In other words, the IARC or WHO does not evaluate the danger; the evidence is. According to Christopher Wild, the director of the IARC, “The IARC evaluations are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.” As an illustration, the US Dietary Guidelines Committee published an assessment of nutrition and health earlier this year; among the findings was that red meat intake should be restricted for human and environmental health.

High Consumption of Processed Meat Versus Smoking

Although smoking and processed meat both fall under the same classification of Group 1 carcinogens, the magnitude or level of risk associated with smoking are significantly higher than those associated with processed meat (e.g., for lung cancer, about 20-fold or 2000% increased risk). An analysis of data from 10 studies, cited in the IARC report, showed an 18% increased risk of colorectal cancer per 50g processed meat increase per day. To put this into perspective, the Global Disease Burden Project 2012 reports that high consumption of processed beef causes over 34,000 cancer deaths worldwide, compared to smoking’s 1 million fatalities. Increased red or processed meat consumption also raises mortality and risk for other chronic illnesses.

It’s vital to remember that the estimations mentioned above only apply to cancer-related deaths. It is well known that, in addition to raising the risk of some cancers, eating a lot of red and processed meat can also increase your risk of developing other chronic, potentially fatal conditions like type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke. More significant overall mortality rates have been linked to more oversized red or processed meat intakes, according to research by our team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Medical School, and other institutions. According to data from the Global Burden of Disease Project from 2013, a diet heavy in processed meat was responsible for 644,000 overall fatalities, including those caused by cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

Brief Information on Processed Meat in Another Research

Today, processed meats are regarded by the World Health Organization as “carcinogenic to humans.” According to recent estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, processed beef is responsible for over 34,000 cancer deaths annually worldwide. Devastating research relating meat intake and cancer was released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization. The IARC is the top organization assessing the likelihood that substance exposure can cause cancer. From Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans) through Group 4 (probably not carcinogenic to people), the IARC classifies chemicals.

According to the WHO, processed meat is altered through salting, curing, fermenting, smoking, or other methods to increase flavor or improve preservation. According to the WHO, processed meats often contain pork or beef, but they can also include other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat byproducts like blood. Hot dogs, gammon, sausages, corned beef and beef jerky, are a few examples of processed meat, as are canned meat and dishes and sauces that contain meat.

A Group 1 classification for cancer risk places processed meat in the same category as asbestos and tobacco use. Like the chemical glyphosate, red meat has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen or “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

When there is adequate proof of human carcinogenicity, the Group 1 designation is applied. Put another way, and there is strong proof that the agent causes cancer. The evaluation is typically based on epidemiological studies that indicate how exposure to humans can cause cancer.

The advice was based on epidemiological studies suggesting that consuming large amounts of red or processed meat may raise the chance of developing several malignancies. In red meat, the classification was based on substantial mechanistic evidence and epidemiological research indicating positive links between consuming red meat and colorectal cancer.

The IARC Working Group reviewed more than 800 studies on human cancer (some included information on both forms of meat; in total, more than 700 epidemiological studies had data on red meat, and more than 400 epidemiological studies included information on processed meat). There were 22 specialists from ten different nations in the IARC Working Group.


The World Health Organization’s bold step in labelling processed meat as a carcinogen has undoubtedly sparked much-needed conversations about the risks associated with its consumption. The Group 1 classification highlights the urgency for governments, health organizations, and food industries to develop strategies to mitigate the adverse health effects of processed meat intake. As consumers, making informed choices about our dietary habits becomes crucial in safeguarding our well-being. Furthermore, the WHO’s declaration reminds us that research and vigilance are vital in identifying potential health hazards in our everyday food choices. By fostering awareness and promoting healthier alternatives, we can collectively work towards improving global public health outcomes and reducing the burden of cancer-related diseases.

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