Scientists say not all processed meats could cause cancer - but these are the ones that will

Not all processed meats carry the same level of cancer risk, according to Northern Irish researchers.

Experts at Queen’s University Belfast examined the link between processed meat and a variety of cancers, and found a “significant” difference between meats treated with nitrates, and those that were not.


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The scientists reviewed previous research on the subject, and isolated the results for processed meats that had been treated with sodium nitrate - a preservative used to extend shelf life and enhance colour.

They found a much stronger link between colo-rectal cancers and processed meat that had been treated with nitrates than nitrate-free processed meat.

Which foods contain nitrates?

In 2015, the WHO classified all processed meat as a carcinogen – including bacon, sausages, ham, prosciutto and salami.

But British and Irish sausages, which are not processed with nitrates, were classified as carcinogens alongside many of the EU and US sausage equivalents – like frankfurters, pepperoni and chorizo - which are.

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Processed meats that are often treated with nitrates include:

SalamiBolognaCorned beefFrankfurtersCured meats

The Queen's University researchers now believe there is a need to define the health risk of both types of processed meat separately.

Co-author Professor Chris Elliott OBE said, “Because there have been conflicting claims in the scientific community and the media about which types of meat may be carcinogenic, this study couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It brings much-needed rigour and clarity and points the way for further research in this area.”

Should we stop eating processed meats?

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“It’s important we eat a healthy, balanced diet in line with the government’s ‘Eatwell Guide’,” said study lead author, Dr Brian Green.

“The current Department of Health guidance advises the public to consume no more than 70g of red or processed meat per day.

“That remains the guidance, but we hope that future research investigating the link between diet and colorectal cancer (CRC) will consider each type of meat individually rather than grouping them together.

“Our findings clearly show that not all processed meats, for example, carry the same level of risk.”

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