Cancer Risk of Processed Meat


  On 26 October 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the classification of processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1A) based on sufficient scientific evidence in humans that its consumption causes colorectal cancer. It is meat produced by salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance its flavor and extend its shelf life, like sausages, ham, bacon and roast meat jerky.


  Though processed meat, cigarettes and arsenic have been classified in the same category (Group 1A) as carcinogenic, but this only serves to show that there is so far “sufficient” scientific evidence proving that they are to certain extent carcinogenic. Yet, this does NOT mean that they are equally dangerous. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of WHO graded the level of carcinogenicity based on sufficiency of supporting scientific evidence rather than on the strength of carcinogenicity. Hence, the level of cancer risk caused by consumption of processed meat and that of tobacco smoking is not the same.


Why does consumption of processed meat enhance cancer risk?

  Nitrites are added during the manufacturing of processed meat products as preservatives and other processing activities, like smoking, are employed to enhance their flavor and for preservation purpose. However, during high-temperature cooking of processed meat products, they may produce carcinogenic chemicals, namely N-nitroso, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines.


Do we have to stop eating processed meat?

  Experts concerned have concluded that a daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meat products will increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. However, this does not mean that we have to stop eating them. The purpose of WHO is to remind members of public to reduce consumption of processed meat products and adjust their daily dietary habits since excessive consumption of any food or drinks may affect health. In the case of alcohol, excessive drinking could cause acute sickness.


Advice to the public:

  1. Maintain a balanced diet and reduce consumption of processed meat. 
  2. Avoid high-temperature cooking (pan-frying/ deep-frying/ roasting).
  3. Always mix and match processed meat with other types of meat (chicken/fish) in daily diet.
  4. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.