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Can I still eat sausages?

9th November 2015

I’ve spoken to many dismayed sausage eaters over the last couple of weeks since the news headlines linking processed meat with a ‘definite’ and red meats with a ‘probable’ cause of cancer. There is always a degree of skepticism with such news headlines and as a result people often ignore the advice altogether.

So what’s the evidence?

This is not new news, there is now a large body of high quality research, providing conclusive evidence on this link. Back in 2011 the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) conducted a large review of all the evidence relating to the link between bowel cancer and processed and red meat consumption. Their review showed that those who ate the most processed and red meat had a higher incidence of bowel cancer, but not to the same effect. Processed meat is more strongly linked to bowel cancer than red meat and as a result the WCRF recommended that to reduce the risk of bowel cancer people should eat no more than 500g, (cooked weight), per week of red meat and eat as little processed meat as possible. Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, Veal, mutton, horse and goat. Processed meats include ham, bacon and salami that have been preserved by curing, salting, fermentation, smoking or addition of preservatives that extend the shelf life.

The recent news headlines were a result of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) monograph on Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Twenty-two scientists from 10 countries met at IARC to review current research, which re-enforced that of the 2011 WCRF report.

How does it cause cancer?

There are various theories but the main body of evidence suggests that when the red pigment in meat called ‘heam’ is broken down in the body it produces chemicals called N-nitroso compounds. These compounds have been found to damage the lining of the bowel, leading to cancer. When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed. In addition to this, cooking red meat to a high temperature such as grilling or barbequing can also create chemicals in the meat that may increase the risk of cancer.

So what does this mean in practice?

Choosing high quality, locally produced red and processed meat is not going to reduce your risk, the evidence suggests it’s the processing itself or the chemicals naturally present that increase the cancer risk. Therefore it’s suggested that we need to cut down our consumption of these meats, as apposed to cutting them out of our diet altogether. Red meat is a valuable source of iron, zinc and protein, so it plays an important role in the diet eaten in moderation. Based on all the evidence the government advises people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and/or processed meat a day should cut down to 70g or less. It is also important to consider other lifestyle changes which can help reduce the risk of cancer such as losing weight, stopping smoking, taking more exercise and reducing alcohol consumption.

Date: 9th November 2015