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Wise Nutritional Choices for Cancer Prevention, Part 1: Processed Meats and Red Meats

[Portions of this article have been copied verbatim from resources listed below.]

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US and has probably had an impact on most of us. So when guidelines change it can be confusing and frustrating. On October 26 of 2015,The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, released it’s monograph summary evaluation on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Here is a brief summary of what was reported.

Processed Meat was classified as “carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”. “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” says Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program. Experts conclude that for every 2 ounces of processed meat consumed daily, the risk of colorectal cancer increases 18%. Processed meats are foods that have been modified through the use of chemicals, sodium nitrates, and heat to improve flavor and preservation. They include hot dogs, sausage, ham, pastrami, corned beef, beef jerky, and canned meats.

Red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.” The summary also stated “there is limited evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat.” This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer but associations were seen for pancreatic and prostate cancer. Red meats include beef, pork, lamb, veal, and goat.

What does this mean in layman’s terms? The IARC has concluded that diets high in processed meats may lead to an increase in cancer risk, especially colon and rectal cancer. The summary was less conclusive on whether red meat causes cancer or not, but the IARC did recommend limiting dietary intake of red meat. This is not new information, however. While the IARC just published their findings, other organizations including The American Cancer Society (in 2007) and the USDA have already published guidelines recommending limiting consumption of red and processed meats. That the WHO now also confirms these recommendations further highlights the importance of limiting these foods.

What does this mean for my family? Cancer is a very complex disease, and it is unrealistic to isolate one single food, including beef, as an independent cause of cancer. It’s all about moderation, as many health professionals, including myself, teach. All foods eaten in moderation can be enjoyed and savored without guilt or fear. So eating an occasional hot dog at the baseball game is not going to give you cancer. But processed meats should be avoided as much as possible.

Red meat contains beneficial vitamins and minerals including iron, vitamin B12, niacin, and zinc. It is generally recommended that 10% of your total calories, or about 2 small servings per week, can come from eating red meat as part of a balanced diet. When cooking meat, poultry or fish be sure to use medium (not high) temperatures, so that you avoid charring the exterior of the meat, because toxic substances will be produced. If you happen to get any char on your meat, trim it off before serving.

Click Here for Part 2 of this series.


Anselmo, Cara. What the WHO said – and didn’t say – about meat and cancer. Food and Nutrition Magazine. 2015.

IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. World Health Organization. 2015.

Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. World Health Organization. 2015.

Scientific Evidence Submissions: IARC. Beef Research. 2015.


Thank you to SD, Dietetic Intern, 2015  for your help with this blog.