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Processed Meat & Cancer: Is It Worth the Risk?

No matter how delicious you think bacon and sausage are, there’s no denying that they’re simply not healthy. Bacon, sausage and other processed meats tend to be high in sodium, fat and preservatives.

It’s these nutritional facts about processed meats that have linked them with an increased risk of obesity and other serious health conditions such as high cholesterol and heart disease. However, there’s also a growing body of evidence linking processed meat with an even more serious health problem.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cancer research group has found there’s enough evidence to state eating processed meat increases your risk of cancer, especially colorectal cancer.

“[The World Health Organization] defined processed meat as that which has been transformed through salting, curing or fermentation to enhance its flavor or to preserve it,” said Dr. Anthony Scarpaci, an Abington-Jefferson Health hematologist and medical oncologist.

“Most of the products they talked about were beef or pork-related products, although some studies included in the report included poultry or other by-products such as blood or products that had internal organs. A pretty broad definition was used.”

While these meats’ ingredients make them nutritionally unhealthy, it’s how they’re made that may lead to more serious health conditions.

“There are carcinogens released or formed in the meats when they go through the preservation process,” Dr. Scarpaci said.

The WHO report listed processed meats as carcinogenic, which means the compounds in the meat cause cancer. The report also looked at red meat, which Dr. Scarpaci said was listed in a slightly different category than processed meat – it’s listed as only “probably carcinogenic” by WHO.

“There’s limited evidence between eating red meat and colorectal cancer – they didn’t have as much evidence to make a stronger link,” he said.

Although the WHO report listed red meat as “probably carcinogenic,” the organization stated that there are health benefits to eating it in moderation. Unfortunately, the report didn’t address what a “safe” level is.

Are You At Risk?

“What eating in moderation means is different – it varies depending on your medical history, complications with risk factors and lifestyle,” Dr. Scarpaci said. If you want to know how much red meat and what amount, if any, of processed meat you can occasionally indulge in, consult a dietician or nutritionist.

If you’re worried about your risk of colorectal cancer, you should talk to your doctor.

“The strongest thing is family history – there are certain genetic syndromes that can increase a person's risk,” he said. “The average risk patient is recommended screening colonoscopy at age 50. Some patients at a higher risk need screening sooner.”

Lowering Your Risks

Lifestyle factors, including your level of exercise and the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet, may play a role in lowering the risk of developing colorectal cancer, Dr. Scarpaci said.

“Somebody who has a higher risk [of colorectal cancer], like family history, and the risk having a diet high in processed meats – that’s something that could be modified to lower their risk as much as possible,” he said.

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