Understanding WHO’s Classification of Processed Meat as Carcinogenic

Winter burger

I’m getting asked a lot this week about the World Health Organization’s classification of processed meat as a “Group 1 Carcinogen” and I want to talk about what this means exactly because per usual, the media is running with this in all sorts of misleading ways. Here is what you need to know (summarized the bottom line at the end if you just want to skip to that 😉 )


1. No, eating processed meat is not as bad for you as smoking: 

Even though WHO is placing processed meats into the same risk level group as smoking (other members of the group include alcohol and sunlight) it does not mean the risk is the same. Looking at the numbers, smoking increases your risk of developing cancer hundreds of times more than eating processed meat. While they may both be carcinogenic, there is a huge difference in how use/consumption actually plays out in terms of cancer risk.

2. Cancer risk is not simply a matter of eating or not eating one thing or another:

It is the overall sum of multiple variables that include your environmental toxin exposure, overall diet (including quality of food not just food type –more on that in a second), genetics, stress, and more.

3. Nitrates/Nitrites are a problem:

Processed meats are notoriously high in nitrates/nitrites, which are added during the production process to help preserve the meat. Nitrates/nitrites are a big part of the problem, as was pointed out by researchers. You CAN purchase processed meats with NO added nitrates/nitrites (ex. Applegate Farms products).

4. Heme iron’s role:

Heme, an iron compound in red meat that gives it its color, was also pointed out as potentially one of the reasons processed meats are carcinogenic. It breaks down into carcinogenic compounds in the gut. This alone is not necessarily a bad thing as our bodies are tremendous at neutralizing these compounds. However, when combined with nitrates/nitrites AND cooking at high temperatures, this magnifies the problem making it risky overall. Alone, heme iron is the most easy to absorb form of iron for our bodies and it is coming in the context of what it actually a nutrient-dense food (red meat).

Bottom line:

  • Continue to push yourself to eat lots of colorful produce that helps our body mop up free radicals
  • Don’t overcook red or processed meats (consider roasting, slow cooking, and braising as opposed to grilling)
  • Choose GOOD QUALITY MEAT that comes from pastured animals and does not have added nitrates or nitrites.

And for me, this isn’t a discussion on vegetarianism versus eating meat. That is a personal decision that should be made after consideration of many different things. WHO’s classification of processed meats certainly isn’t reason alone to give up meat, even just red meat, entirely.

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