Hot dogs and cold cuts are under fire: The World Health Organization threw its global weight behind years of doctors’ warnings and declared Monday that processed meats raise the risk of colon and stomach cancer and that red meat is probably dangerous, too.
Meat producers are angry, vegetarians are feeling vindicated and cancer experts are welcoming the most comprehensive pronouncement yet on the relation between our modern meat-eating lifestyles and cancer.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, analyzed decades of research and ended up putting processed meats in the same danger category as smoking or asbestos for the first time. That doesn’t mean salami is as dangerous as cigarettes, only that there’s a confirmed link to cancer.
The results could hurt the American meat industry, which is arguing vigorously against linking their products with cancer, contending that the disease also involves lifestyle and environmental factors.
While U.S. rates of colon cancer have been declining, it is the No. 2 cancer for women worldwide and No. 3 for men, according to the WHO.
A group of 22 scientists from the IARC evaluated more than 800 studies from several continents about meat and cancer. The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.
Based on that analysis, the IARC classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” noting links in particular to colon cancer. It said red meat contains important nutrients, but still labeled it “probably carcinogenic.”
The agency made no specific dietary recommendations and said it did not have enough data to define how much processed meat is too dangerous. But it said the risk rises with the amount consumed.
Experts have long warned of the dangers of certain chemicals used to cure meat, such as nitrites and nitrates, which the body converts into cancer-causing compounds. It is also known that grilling or smoking meat can create suspected carcinogens.
The cancer agency noted research by the Global Burden of Disease Project suggesting that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are linked to diets heavy in processed meat. That compared with 1 million deaths a year linked to smoking, 600,000 a year to alcohol consumption and 200,000 a year to air pollution.