Processed Meats Get a Roasting

The media is having a field-day with news that the WHO has classified processed meat as carcinogenic.

Some reports are saying that bacon, sausages and ham now sit alongside plutonium, arsenic and mustard gas in the cancer rankings. While this is technically true, it is also wildly misleading. Let’s get things in perspective.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the WHO, has carried out a highly credible study and concluded that processed meat ought to be classified as a ‘Group 1’ carcinogen (see However, this is a hazard identification, not a risk assessment. The meaning of ‘Group 1’ is explained here, alongside a list of others in the group.

Yes, asbestos is on that list. But so is sunlight (solar radiation) and wine (alcoholic beverage). As they explain:“The… classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk”. The same study has led them to classify red meat as “probably carcinogenic” (Group 2a). While they make no recommendations regarding diet, they note that the risk increases with the amount consumed.

Here’s a good commentary on the findings, along with UK government recommendations on portion size:

As the author says: “It’s just about being sensible, and not eating too much, too often”.

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