Bacon, Hot Dogs and Lunch Meat – Is it Processed Meat?

Today, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) named processed meat as a carcinogen. AICR has included avoiding processed meat as one of our recommendations for cancer prevention since 2007. Processed meat (and high amounts of red meat) increase risk for colorectal cancer.

Here’s our statement on the WHO report.

Both organizations found that for processed meat, even small amounts eaten daily – 50 grams or 1 small hot dog – increases risk for colorectal cancer by 18% compared to eating none.Red Processed Meat Rec

So what exactly is “processed meat”?

AICR defines processed meat as:

“meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.” Ham, bacon, pastrami, sausages, hot dogs and cold cuts are all considered processed meat.

IARC’s definition:

“meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processing to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meat may also contain other red meats and poultry”

Grilling burgers and hot dogs

Grilling burgers and hot dogs

It’s not yet clear exactly why these meats increase risk for colorectal cancer. It may be the added nitrites and nitrates, the smoking and/or high temperatures used in some processing, or the heme iron in red meat.

Does this include nitrate and nitrite free meats and sausage? These products are relatively new, so we need more studies that make these distinctions.

So, for now, save processed meats for special occasions and choose fresh meats most of the time. Here are some ideas to lower your cancer risk:

  • Replace deli meats and cold cuts with fresh chicken or fish
  • Instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy vegetarian sausages.
  • Replace sausage in chili and soups with beans like kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.
  • Try out different sources of protein like eggs, cottage cheese, tofu and hummus

IARC has also listed red meat as a probable carcinogen. AICR’s recommendation for red meat is to keep your red meat to less than 18 ounces (cooked) per week. That’s about 4 hamburgers (quarter-pounders) weekly.

For more on how to lower risk for colorectal cancer see the latest from the AICR/WCRF expert report continuous update here.

Visit AICR Healthy Recipes for delicious recipes for chicken, fish, beef and pork.

11 thoughts on “Bacon, Hot Dogs and Lunch Meat – Is it Processed Meat?

  1. I would definitely like to see more research done on meats processed without chemicals. Intuition tells me these are probably safer. Also, my family eats mostly wild venison, how does this type of meat compare with farm raised beef/pork. Another layer would be to look into organic grass-fed meats versus large factory farm meats. The fact is humans have been eating meat a long time. Have we always had these cancers? Is it because we’re living longer? Or is it because we are injecting our animals with god knows what and feeding them primarily corn.

  2. Would turkey sausage that is made from “fresh ground turkey with seasonings” (Shady Brook Farms Sweet Italian Turkey and Shady Brook Farms Breakfast Sausage come to mind) be classified in the same group of processed meat that the study was looking at?

    • Kevin,
      Technically, chicken nuggets would be considered processed, but keep in mind that the vast majority of the research on processed meats and cancer risk would be on sausage, bacon, hot dogs and lunchmeat.

  3. I would definitely like to see more research done on meats processed without chemicals. Intuition tells me these are probably safer. Also, my family eats mostly wild venison, how does this type of meat compare with farm raised beef/pork. Another layer would be to look into organic grass-fed meats versus large factory farm meats. The fact is humans have been eating meat a long time. Have we always had these cancers? Is it because we’re living longer? Or is it because we are injecting our animals with god knows what and feeding them primarily corn. I think we need to be careful of throwing the baby out with the bath water and carefully analyze our modern farm and food preservation practices. That said, if you are eating more than 18 oz of meat per week you need to cut back anyway and you are probably not eating enough grains and vegetables.

    • Hi Taylor,
      I’m a dietitian, and we have been weighing these points as well. Grass-fed beef does have a better fatty acid profile, so it is worth buying for that. If we paid a higher price for quality meat, it might help to reduce the amount we eat overall as well. The cancer risk likely comes from the process of applying heat to the source of iron in animal meat (heme iron). More fruits and veggies and less meat, especially processed: it’s so simple, I think we complicate it 🙂

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