Red meat, processed meat and bowel cancer

What do we know?

  • Processed meat includes meats that are preserved, which includes cured, smoked, and salted meat. These are usually seen on supermarket shelves in the form of sausages, bacon, ham, salami and hot dogs etc.
  • The most commonly eaten red meats are beef, pork and lamb.
  • Scientists and doctors have known about the potential links between red meats, processed meat and bowel cancer for several years.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently looked at over 800 studies and concluded that there is a definite link between the consumption of processed meat and the risk of bowel cancer. This confirms what had previously been suspected- processed meat is a cause of bowel cancer.
  • Scientists believe there is possible causal link between red meat and bowel cancer, but unlike the case with processed meat, the evidence is not quite so strong – red meat is a probable cause of bowel cancer
  • Meats such as chicken or turkey and fish don’t appear to be associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer.
  • When haemoglobin, found in red and processed meat, is broken down by digestion in the gut, chemicals such as N-nitroso compounds are formed. These chemicals can damage the cells lining the gut. This damage and the constant need for new cells to grow can lead to cancers forming. This is because, the more that cells need to replicate to repair the more chance there is of a potentially cancerous mutation developing.
  • The potentially harmful N-nitroso chemicals can be formed from other chemicals in processed meats such as nitrate preservatives.
  • Cooking or barbequing red and processed meats at high temperatures may also lead to the formation of higher levels of chemicals that can potentially harm the lining of the gut.
  • Does this mean the end sausages and bacon for cooked breakfast fans? The short answer is ‘no’. Whilst processed meat and bowel cancer are linked, the risks to health are nowhere near as dangerous as smoking.
  • Eating red and processed meat in moderation, as part of a balanced diet, is fine. If you do enjoy red and processed meats, think about cutting down on your portion size. The message is don’t eat too much or too often.

More on the link between processed meat and bowel cancer.

To read one patient’s story go to the following link:

If you’re concerned about bowel cancer please contact us on 0845 241 7762 or email: Meanwhile, click this link to refer to our patient information and common bowel symptoms.

You may also like to read our recent article on aspirin and bowel cancer.

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