Eating just 50g of processed meat a day (which is less than two slices of bacon) increases the risk of developing bowel cancer, according to an authoritative report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Bowel cancer is the third-most common type of the disease world-wide and is responsible for over 16,000 deaths a year in the UK.
Following the report, the WHO now classifies processed meat products as “carcinogenic to humans”, the strongest level of risk for cancer, the same level as cigarette smoke, asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust fumes. So how big is the risk and should we all be giving up bacon sandwiches?
What is processed meat?
The term ‘processed food’ applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience. “Processed meat” refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami and pâtés.
Why does processed meat increase the risk of cancer?
Even with the WHO’s report, it is not yet clear exactly why processed meats increase risk for colorectal cancer. There are a few avenues that are being explored including
- Nitrates are added to processed meats to preserve color and prevent spoilage. In laboratory studies, these compounds form cancer-causing compounds, carcinogens.
- Smoked meats contain PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), substances that are formed at high-heat and considered carcinogenic.
- Meats cooked at high temperatures can also contain PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCA’s), which can damage DNA.
- Heme iron which is found in red meat may damage the lining of the colon.
How much processed meat is safe to eat?
If you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, the Department of Health advises that you cut down to 70g.
90 grams is the equivalent to around three thinly cut slices of beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread. A cooked breakfast containing two typical British sausages and two rashers of bacon is equivalent to 130g.
How can you prevent bowel cancer?
It is not known exactly what causes bowel cancer, but there are a number of things you can do to decrease your risk:
- Diet … cut down on red and processed meats and ensure your diet is high in fibre.
- Weight … bowel cancer is more common in people who are overweight or obese.
- Exercise … being active decreases the risk of getting bowel cancer.
- Alcohol and Smoking … a high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer.
- Check your family history … having a close relative (mother or father, brother or sister) who developed bowel cancer below 50 years of age puts you at a greater lifetime risk of developing the condition.
- Bowel cancer screening … if you’re concerned about bowel cancer ensure you are screened – the NHS offers two types of screening and it plays an important part in the fight against bowel cancer because it can help detect bowel cancer before it causes obvious symptoms, which increases the chances of surviving the condition.
For the last two years, Healthy Performance have offered the faecal occult blood (FOB) tests as part of their health screening options. If you are concerned about bowel cancer and the symptoms then please visit you GP.