Does Processed Meat Cause Colon Cancer?


One of the major villains in modern nutrition, at least according to mainstream media reports, is processed meat. And one of the major indictments against processed meats is that it may cause colon cancer.

But is that true? Is there evidence that points to processed meat as a major cause of colon cancer?

Let’s find out what the research says.

What Is Processed Meat

For the purposes of scientific study, processed meat usually includes any animal flesh product that has been smoked, grilled, cured, salted, or otherwise chemically altered to enhance flavor and shelf life. This includes such “goodies” as bologna, lunch meats, salami, and even jerky.

Usually, mechanically manipulated meat is not included in this bucket, so ground beef is generally excluded.

What Does Science Say?

When it comes to the effects of processed meat on your health, there is no shortage of scientific evidence, and most of it is not very pretty.

For instance, a 2008 review from researchers in France looked at available data from epidemiological and clinical studies and concluded that eating processed meat on a regular basis can increase your risk of developing colon cancer between 20 and 50%. The main culprits seem to be the chemicals involved in processing: N-nitroso compounds, heterocyclic amines from heating, and even the heme iron that’s in meat naturally.

On the other hand, a  2014 review led by Norwegian researchers concludes that, while there does seem to be some evidence that meat in general may lead to a higher incidence of colon cancer, the data are inconclusive. The scientists point to the fact that many of the research results available to this point rely on self-reported dietary habits by the subjects, which leaves them open to error. Such epidemiological results usually lead to more studies rather than allowing scientists to draw firm and final conclusions.

Finally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer released their position in 2015, which stated that processed meats may increase the risk of colon cancer by up to 18%. Again, though, much of the data used to reach this conclusion was epidemiological in nature.

What Does It Mean for You?

So, should you be eating processed meat or not?

There is no reason why you should go out of your way to eat processed meat, and plenty of reason to avoid it. The chemicals and fat found in many varieties won’t do you any good but could do you harm.

On the other hand, it’s not a death sentence if you have to eat a lunchmeat sandwich in a pinch, but you need to make sure it doesn’t become a habit.

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