Most people know that eating too much red meat has negative impacts on our health. Now the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a study that indicates processed meats such as ham, sausages and bacon cause cancer.

In the WHO’s report, it concluded that consuming 50g of processed meat a day (which is less than two slices of bacon) increased a person’s chance of developing colorectal cancer by almost 20%.

The report also indicated that red meats in general were “probably carcinogenic” but there was limited hard evidence to back up this assertion.

Despite the bad news for hardcore meat lovers, the WHO did point out that red meat has some health benefits.

The group, Cancer Research UK, said that the results of the study show what many of us already knew: everything in moderation. Rather than give up red and processed meats completely, eating red meat in small quantities is generally OK.

Processed meat consists of meat plus some sort of modification in order to alter its taste and increase its shelf-life. This includes curing and/or smoking the meat and adding salt and preservatives.

The new research proposes that it is these modifications that may be increasing the risk of cancer. The study also notes that high temperature cooking, like barbecuing, can potentially create cancer-causing chemicals.

The WHO has now included processed meat in the same category as alcohol and plutonium as things that “definitely do cause cancer.” However, these items are not equally dangerous. A roast beef sandwich is still not as bad for you as smoking.

WHO doctor, Kurt Straif, stated that, “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.”

In contrast to cancer caused by smoking – which leads to one million deaths per year – and that caused by alcohol – which leads to 600,000 deaths per year – cancer caused by diets high in processed meat leads to about 34,000 deaths per year.

Professor Tim Key, from the Cancer Research UK and the University of Oxford, stated that, “This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat, but if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. Eating a bacon [sandwich] every once in awhile isn’t going to do much harm – having a healthy diet is all about moderation.”

Of course, the meat industry takes some issue with the WHO’s findings. A statement released by the Meat Advisory Panel said that, “avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer” and argued that alcohol, smoking and body weight should be the real focus in preventing cancer.

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