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30th October 2015

Meat is NOT the new tobacco!

Headlines this week suggesting that meat is as dangerous as cigarettes or asbestos were highly misleading. The press's interest followed the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluation on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red and processed meat.

IARC classified the consumption of processed meat (e.g. ham, bacon and salami) as carcinogenic, and red meat (e.g. lamb, beef and pork) as probably carcinogenic. This classification was largely based on the evidence from prospective cohort studies that looked at the risk of colorectal cancer between high and low consumers.

Is this the same as saying meat is as dangerous as tobacco? No.

What it says is there is sufficiently strong evidence for IARC to conclude that high intakes of processed meat (and red meat, but with weaker evidence) are associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. It is not a qualification of how dangerous it is i.e. IARC makes no statement about the level of risk. The risk attributed to smoking for example is many times greater than the risk associated with eating red and processed meat.

The IARC press release stated that, “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed."

Nutritional value of meat

Let us also not forget that meat has nutritional value and is a source of good quality protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, selenium and B vitamins – important in any healthy diet but perhaps even more so in an older population. But the results are important in bringing attention to high red and processed meat consumers that they need to consider reducing their intake.

Perhaps somewhat spookily (Halloween is approaching after all!) this blog looked at the UK's advice around processed meats a few weeks ago, which remains unchanged. Current advice is to limit consumption of processed meat and to keep your consumption of red meat to 500g of cooked meat a week or less (70g per day). This is also supported by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). To put this into context, a medium portion of roast beef or pork is about 90g and a medium steak is about 145g (cooked weight). Average intake in the UK is around this level (71g/day) but those with higher meat intakes should consider cutting down.

We need to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations – currently that would suggest that a bacon or ham sandwich from time to time, a roast dinner or spaghetti Bolognese are not a danger and can be included in a healthy, balanced diet – don’t forget you can always cut down a little on the meat and replace with some veg or pulses!

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all. Read more

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