Is eating meat as harmful as smoking?

This weekend the world awoke to hear that the World Health Organisation (W.H.O) had classified processed meat as carcinogenic. The media worked themselves into a frenzy in their attempts to bring readers the shocking headlines.

“Claims by world health chiefs that processed meats can give you cancer and are as bad for you as smoking cigarettes” – Daily Mail Online

“Processed meats do cause cancer” – WHO – BBC News

It all makes good headline but what is the truth behind this most recent decision from the International Advisory Committee? Can the press release from the International Agency for Research on Cancer shine a light on the nuance of these findings?
On red meat

“…the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”

The World Health Organisation (W.H.O) acknowledges that evidence is inconclusive. Do these findings mean that we should give up red meat entirely? Probably not. We may want to consider just how much red meat we consume. Recommendations from British cancer charities and the NHS have long stood at 70g per person per day. Whilst it is an important source of protein, B vitamins and heme iron – particularly for those amongst us who are anaemic and struggle to absorb the nonheme iron in plants – 12st century consumers eat more red meat than our ancestors did. Often in direct correlation with a decrease in the amount of vegetables, beans and pulses found on our plates.


On processed meat. This is where the IARC classification gets a little more unnerving. In this case, the statement is unwavering in its certainty.

“Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”

Group 1 also contains tobacco and asbestos substances, the origin of many claims made in current news headlines.

“Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”

What does this classification really mean to the man on the street? The statement goes on to say that eating 50g of processed meat can increase the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. Figures from the Cancer Research UK state “In 2010, lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer in the UK was 1 in 14 for men and 1 in 19 for women.” Therefore consuming processed meat must increase this figure by one fifth. It is only through understanding the original level of risk that we can comprehend the true dangers of our bacon sandwich.

The press release from the IARC and W.H.O goes on to conclude that the study of data and recent classification was important “because many people worldwide eat meat and meat consumption is increasing in low and middle income countries.” They also recognise that eating small amounts of red meat as part of a balanced diet “has nutritional benefits” and “these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

So what shall I be cooking for myself, family and friends in the future? I honestly don’t believe that much will change in my regular eating habits. Bacon and sausage are a rare treat already, though ham may feature less in my lunchtime sandwiches. My husband and I often pad out meat dishes with vegetables, lentils or chickpeas for extra fibre. As for red meat vs other sources of nutrition, I think that the last word should go to one of my favourite food writers, Micheal Pollan and his book ‘Defence of Food’.
Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.”