Meat is in need of some major PR damage control. In addition to a report claiming that hot dogs contain more than we’re actually aware of, as well as vegetarian options being no-so-vegetarian after all, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified processed meat (and “probably” red meat) as carcinogenic alongside tobacco, arsenic, and pesticides.

While it may have been a hot dinner table topic last week, is the WHO’s new classification that surprising? When was the last time you heard someone say processed food is good for you? Or how often do you run into a person who says they don’t eat red meat for health reasons? I can bet that your answers are “never” and “all the time,” respectively. The good thing about the recent classification, however, is that it raises awareness on the subject of being a smart eater.

The WHO published a report in The Lancet Oncology stating that based on a review of 800 studies from around the world, processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans,” adding it to Group 1 of its carcinogenicity ranking—the most carcinogenic.

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The classification was made by a group of 22 scientists associated with the WHO’s cancer research organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Specifically, the scientists concluded that the regular consumption of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer and stomach cancer.

As for red meat, the team classified it as “probably carcinogenic,” placing it in Group 2 of its carcinogenicity ranking. Based on the data, which saw a correlation between processed meat and colorectal cancer across studies in different populations, “chance, bias, and confounding” were ruled out as explanations. However, the same could not be said for red meat. While a direct link between red meat and cancer has yet to be found in humans, studies have provided strong evidence for it in lab animals.

Although the conclusion places processed meat on the same level as smoking tobacco in terms of cancer risk, it does not mean that the two are equally as dangerous, says the IARC. According to its data, the risk of developing colon cancer increases by 18% for every 50 g of processed meat eaten on a daily basis. Comparatively, smoking tobacco is linked to 90% of lung cancer cases in the United States, and people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from it than people who do not smoke.

While the exact cause is not clear, the IARC attributes the cancer-causing qualities of processed meat (and “probable” cancer-causing qualities of red meat) to a number of reasons, one of them being that carcinogenic chemicals form during meat processing or cooking, including N-nitroso compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic aromatic amines. “Despite this knowledge, it is not yet fully understood how cancer risk is increased by red meat or processed meat,” the IARC said.

The WHO said in an additional statement that it does not ask people to stop eating processed meat, but rather provides the data on its cancer-causing qualities so that consumers can make an informed decision about what they eat.

The best bet? Stick to a healthy diet: eat plenty of fiber, fruit, and vegetables, and limit red and processed meat, swapping them for smarter choices of protein such as poultry, fish, nuts, and legumes.


  1. Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, et al; on behalf of the International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology website. October 26, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015.
  2. Links between processed meat and colorectal cancer. The World Health Organization website. October 29, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015.
  3. So processed meat has been classified as carcinogenic. Here’s what you need to know. Science Alert website. October 27, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015.
  4. What are the risk factors for lung cancer? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated May 6, 2015.