The Bacon Lovers' Guide To New Processed Meat Guidelines For Cancer Risk

27/10/2015 9:29 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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For meat lovers, the hamageddon started this week.

Spammed with news of World Health Organisation guidelines labeling processed meat as a carcinogen, people the world over asked themselves: 'Should I break my bacon habit?'

The answer, in short, is that you don't have to unless you really, really eat a lot of bacon.

Or as Chief Scientist Alan Finkel told the ABC this morning: "Moderation is probably the best approach".

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said he didn't think meat should be compared to cigarettes.

“If you are going to avoid everything that has any correlation with cancer, don’t walk outside, don’t walk down the streets in Sydney -- there’s going to be very little in life you can do at the end," he said on ABC Radio National.

“If you got everything the World Health Organisation said was carcinogen and took it out of your daily requirements, well you're kinda heading back to a cave.”

So for the Joyces of the world, how much is too much and are some processed meats, like prosciutto, better than devon (A.K.A, fritz, stras, luncheon meat or baloney)?


If this is your daily breakfast, you may need to cut back.

WHO said what?

The organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer has released a report assessing more than 800 previous studies investigating cancer risk and red or processed meat.

The assembled experts classified processed meat as carcinogenic, based on sufficient evidence that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

The group also showed there was sufficient evidence to show the excess consumption of red meat was associated with colorectal cancer and to a lesser extent, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

But how much is too much?

The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

To put that in perspective, that's half a packet of prosciutto a day, or about two rashers of bacon.

They didn't specify an amount of red meat to be eaten to cause cancer. In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council's current dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 65 to 100 grams of cooked red meat, three-to-four times a week.

What's not true

While red meat has an association with cancer, it's not classified a carcinogen. The IARC has six carcinogen categories, ranging from not carcinogenic, to probably to definitely. In the scale, red meats sits in the 'possibly carcinogenic' category.

Your weekend fry up is OK. Well, it's not ideal, but 100g of processed meat a week isn't shown to significantly increase your risk of cancer.


Is fancy processed meat better for you than Spam or devon?

Sadly, that's a lot of baloney. The group threw all processed meats in together, including any meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.

Examples they cited included hot dogs, frankfurters, ham, sausages, corned beef, biltong, beef jerky, canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.


How does it compare to cigarettes and alcohol?

Cancer Council Australia nutrition and physical activity committee chair Kathy Chapman said their independent research into bowel cancer put carcinogens into perspective.

"It's important to put the cancer risks associated with red and processed meat into context in terms of other preventable cancer causes," Chapman said.

"While Cancer Council's recent research found that red and processed meat accounted for around 2600 cancer cases each year, 11,500 cancer cases each year are caused by tobacco, 3,900 cancer cases are attributable to obesity and overweight and 3,200 are attributable to alcohol.

"An overall healthy lifestyle, including diet, is important to reduce your cancer risk."

So red meat and a little processed meat is still OK for me?

Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton said it was about moderation when it came to red meat.

“No one doubts that red meat is a nutritious food, nor is there any nutritional reason to remove it from the diet," Stanton said.

"However, in view of the World Cancer Research Fund's evidence of a convincing relationship between red and processed meat and colorectal cancer, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting fresh red meat to approximately 450g a week."

As for processed meat, Chapman said you wouldn't miss out on anything by cutting down your portion size.

"Processed meats, however, are nutrient poor by comparison and more likely to be high in fat, salt and nitrates," Chapman said.

"This is why we recommend reducing or limiting processed meat intake."

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