The Link Between Processed Meat and Cancer: What You Need to Know [Infographic]

Eating processed meat products, such as hot dogs and bacon, can increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer, according to research from an international cancer agency.

hot dog, processed meat, cancerThe International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), said today that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans” based on “sufficient evidence” that it causes colorectal cancer. Each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases colorectal cancer risk by 18 percent, the IARC reported.

“The report synthesizes data from numerous studies conducted for the past 20 years, including the Nurse’s Health Study and Health Professional Follow-Up Study by researchers at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center that showed increased intake of processed and red meat are associated with higher likelihood of developing colorectal cancer,” says Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, MPH, clinical director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber.

In its findings, the IARC also determined red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on “limited evidence” that it causes cancer. Red meat consumption was mainly linked to an increased risk for colorectal cancer, but it also had associations with pancreatic and prostate cancers.

“IARC is a well respected organization that methodically and critically reviews study data. They are cautious about making definitive statements on exposures and cancer risk. Thus, this report stating that processed meat definitively causes cancer and red meat probably causes cancer is very telling,” adds Meyerhardt. “However, we need perspective in this guidance.  It does not mean that everyone who eats processed or red meat will get colorectal cancer, nor does it mean that not eating these meats will eliminate your risk of colorectal cancer.”

Processed meat is classified as meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, or smoked to add flavor or preserve the meat. These meats include ham, bacon, sausages, corned beef, hot dogs, canned meat, and beef jerky. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, mutton, lamb, or goat.

So, what is recommended for patients?

Meyerhardt says, “High consumption of either red meat or processed meat relatively increases your risk compared to those who eat little or none of these products. Low intake is typically defined as no more than two servings per week. So, eliminating these foods from your diet completely is not required, but we recommend minimizing consumption and substituting with other alternatives like chicken and fish.”

Learn more in the infographic below:

processed meat, infographic

Looking for healthy alternatives? Try recipes from our health library.

6 thoughts on “The Link Between Processed Meat and Cancer: What You Need to Know [Infographic]”

  1. What is it about red meat that promotes cancer? I think it’s well known that the chemicals in processed meats (nitrates) are unhealthy. But this article lumps processed meats and red meats together. AFAIK non-processed red meats don’t have those chemicals. So why is red meat unhealthy? Is it the way it’s produced (hormones / animal feeding conditions / bacterial contamination /etc)? What about organic free range beef? Is that unhealthy? Why is meat that is the flesh of cow unhealthy?? This article is vague and leaves many questions unanswered.

    • Dear Steve —

      Thank you for your questions and for reading Insight. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which released these findings, explains why red and processed meat increase risk:

      “Meat consists of multiple components, such as haem iron. Meat can also contain chemicals that form during meat processing or cooking. For instance, carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing include N-nitroso compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Cooking of red meat or processed meat also produces heterocyclic aromatic amines as well as other chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also found in other foods and in air pollution. Some of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens, but despite this knowledge it is not yet fully understood how cancer risk is increased by red meat or processed meat.”

      More detailed information is available in their Q&A on the topic:

      In regards to your question re: organic/free range, we are working on a story now that relates to that topic and will be posting it on Insight soon, so stay tuned.

      Thanks again for your interest!

  2. Would be curious to hear if there is a significant difference between consuming Organic vs. Conventional processed/red meat and/or Industrial vs. Local processed/red meat. Also, I’m guessing there may be a difference in the processing methodology among different countries – any country specific differences on this variable?

    • Dear DLong–

      Thank you for your question and for reading Insight. Our Nutrition team is actually working on a blog post covering that exact topic, so stay tuned! We will have more information soon.

      Thanks again for your interest.

  3. Well they interviewed people who were older than 100, and one of them said her secret was eating hot dogs, go figure haha

  4. I read with interest your research about processed meats, hotdogs, bacon, etc. and red meat. Is there research on eating unprocessed meats,i.e. hot dogs, ham, bacon, etc.
    I have started purchasing these meats uncured?

    Thank you so much

    Reed Brown

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