No Pros to Processed Meat and Cancer

This is according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a group of scientists that reviewed the research to classify processed meat as a definite cause of cancer. This puts our beloved bacon in the same group as tobacco, meaning that the evidence that processed meat causes cancer is as strong as it is for smoking causing cancer.
No Pros to Processed Meat and Cancer
No Pros to Processed Meat and Cancer

Did you know that for every 50 g of processed meat eaten each day you increase your cancer risk by 18 %?

This is the same as roughly 4 slices of ham or one hot dog.

This is according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a group of scientists that reviewed the research to classify processed meat as a definite cause of cancer.

This puts our beloved bacon in the same group as tobacco, meaning that the evidence that processed meat causes cancer is as strong as it is for smoking causing cancer.

The evidence is similar for red meat:

for every 100 g of red meat eaten daily,
there is also an increased cancer risk of 17%.

While we know that cancer is a multifactorial, complex disease, we also know that there is a lot we can do to help manage our cancer risk. The IARC experts concluded that eating processed meat may cause colorectal cancer and there is also a link with stomach cancer (but the evidence is not as conclusive).

Either way, it seems watching how much red and processed meat we eat is a good starting point in the fight against cancer.

What Counts as Processed Meat?

Processed meat are meats that have been preserved by salting, curing, smoking, or adding chemical preservatives.

While most processed meat is mostly made from beef or pork, processed meat can also be made from chicken or offal.

Note: Meats that are mechanically processed (cut or ground) are not considered processed meat.

According to official lists, processed meats are:

  • Ham, cured bacon
  • Sausages, hot dogs, salami
  • Salted and cured meat, corned beef
  • Smoked meat
  • Dried meat, biltong
  • Canned meat
  • Polony

Unfortunately, in South Africa so many families living month to month, processed meat like polony is as much as 27% cheaper than buying a whole chicken.

It is then understandable why it’s easier to stock up our fridges with more processed meat.

Here’s Why You Should Watch Your Processed Meat Portions

There are four main chemicals/compounds that scientists think are the reason behind the risk of cancer and processed meat:

  1. Haem iron/Heme iron

    Haem iron is an iron found in meat in haemoglobin, which is responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood. Haem iron is more easily absorbed by the b ody than non-haem iron (such as found in beans and spinach).

    Haem iron is found in all meats but higher in pork liver, chicken liver, oysters, mussels, beef liver, liver pate, clams, and sardines.

    When broken down by the gut, haem iron produces N-nitroso chemicals that damage the lining of the gut and can lead to bowel cancer.

    Haem also increases the formation of dangerous heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA), produced especially when processed meat is prepared at high temperatures

  2. Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA)

    are carcinogens that are formed during high-temperature cooking of meats. In other words, well-done or charred meat is worse than rarer cooked meat. This is why smoked meats are more dangerous as these meats are cooked at high temperatures.

  3. Nitrates (Sodium Nitrate)

    Sodium nitrate is used as a preservative and may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease.

  4. Nitrites

    The preservative sodium nitrite is used in processed meats and gives them their pink colouration. However, under certain conditions in the human body, nitrite can damage cells and morph into molecules that cause cancer.

More on Nitrites and Nitrates

Lastly, the nitrite and nitrates used as preservatives in processed meat also produce these N-nitroso chemicals in the gut that lead to bowel cancer.

While nitrates are found naturally in leafy green veggies like spinach, it’s those used as a food additive and preservative which are potentially cancer-causing.

Can a little bit of bacon and biltong still be on the menu?

This evidence serves as a reminder for us to review how much red and processed meat we are eating, and how often too.

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends that we aim for less than 300g of red meat per week, and very little if any, processed meat is recommended.

The American Institute of Cancer Research also recommends eating as little processed meat as possible.

The great news is that you can still meet your nutrient goals with little red and processed meat.

    • Portions: When you do eat red meat, control your portions to the suggested 300g per week. This works out to about a palm-sized portion of red meat no more than twice a week. Bear in mind that this includes all cuts of red meat such beef fillet and rump, mince, pork steaks, pork chops, lamb chops, and the like.
    • Dilute: Control portions further by “diluting” the red meat in each meal. For example, add lentils to mince dishes or chickpeas to meat-based curries.
    • Vary your snacks: While biltong and droewors can be a protein-rich snack, try other options like boiled eggs, dairy or roasted chickpeas. Stock up on snacks like FitChef Smoothies, Amazeballs (Coconut or Cranberry), Pine Nibbles, Nuts Snack, Trail Mix and Berry Bars.
    • Swap: If polony, ham or other cold meats is a firm favourite in sarmies, healthy swaps include boiled eggs, leftover chicken, tuna, or smashed chickpeas and cottage cheese.

Chicken & Fish: Get out of a recipe rut and start archiving ideas for chicken and fish dishes. Don’t forget the convenience of chicken and fish meals from the FitChef Range. (Note: Darker cuts of poultry and many fish do contain haem-iron, but at lower.

Eat more eggs: Eggs need not be limited to breakfast. Using free-range eggs from FitChef, try a frittata for dinner bulked up with lots of vegetables like baby spinach, diced mushrooms, grated carrots and chopped red onion.

    • Dairy from free-roaming animals: Place an order on the FitChef Dairy Aisle for milk, yoghurt, and cheese.
    • Flexitarianism: Aim to go meat-free, even just once a week, by adding plant-based proteins like beans, chickpeas, and lentils to your diet. If you’re up for it, challenge yourself more strictly and every quarter go meat-free for a short period. The FitChef Vegan and Vegetarian Kits are a convenient way to support this.
    • Labels: Read the food label to look out for words like nitrate, nitrite, cured or salted, which gives a hint as to whether your choice is processed.


    1. Global Burden of Disease Cancer Collaboration. Global, regional, and national cancer incidence, mortality, years of life lost, years lived with disability, and disability-adjusted life-years for 32 cancer groups, 1990 to 2015. A systematic analysis for the global burden of disease study. JAMA Oncol. 2017. Published online December 3, 2016; doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.5688.
    2. International Agency for Research on Cancer. Consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC Working Group, 2015. .
    3. International Agency for Research on Cancer/ World Health Organization. GLOBOCAN 2012. Available online: Accessed 14 February 2018. .
    4. Kassier SM. Colon cancer and the consumption of red and processed meat: an association that is medium, rare or well done? SAJCN.2016;29(4):145-149. .
    5. World Cancer Research Fund International. Cancer prevention and survival. Summary of global evidence on diet, physical activity and what increases or decreases your cancer risk. 2016. .
    6. World Cancer Research Fund/ American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, nutrition, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Washing DC; American Institute for Cancer Research. 2007
    7. World Health Organization. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet. 2015;16:1600-1601. .
    8. World Health Organization. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Geneva: WHO; 2015. Available from: Miller V et al. Estimated global, regional, and national cardiovascular disease burdens related to fruit and vegetable consumption: an analysis from the Global Dietary Database. Current Developments in Nutrition. 2019;3(S1). Available from: .
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