You might have seen in the headlines this week the stories about processed meats being carcinogenic and being categorised alongside tobacco smoking for causing cancer. Before you fear the worst because of the bacon sandwich you had earlier in the week, let’s put things in perspective.
Firstly, it might be useful for me to clarify what processed meat is. It’s not the lovely chunk of lamb you see in the picture above, processed meats refer to meats that have been salted, cured, fermented or smoked such as bacon, salami and ham. Studies suggest there is an association between high intakes of these processed meats and cancer risk, and the evidence has been considered strong enough to classify processed meats as a definite carcinogen.
So what is a high intake? I enjoy a rasher of bacon every now and again but I don’t personally eat processed red meat more than once a week and certainly not as frequently as fish, chicken and plant-based proteins. It really comes back to that old adage of balance and moderation. The odd occasion that you decide to add some chunks of ham to your omelette is not going to result in cancer from that one exposure, however, if your meals routinely contain processed meats, and I’ve known people who’ve made it a ritual to have bacon butties every day, the evidence suggests you are at increased risk of cancer. Therefore, when it comes to processed red meats, the recommendation, which has been longstanding, is it’s best to keep them to a minimum
So where does the tasty piece of lamb in the photograph and the minced meat in your spaghetti bolognese fit in. Well I’m afraid, just because it is not processed it does not mean we have a licence to eat loads of it every day. Red meats have been given a group 2A classification suggesting a ‘probable’ cause of cancer, however, you do not have to stop eating it, instead focus on how much you are eating and ensuring you are generally eating a healthy, varied diet. Lean red meat is a source of iron and vitamin B12, as well as other essential nutrients, and around 1 in 10 women in the UK are low in iron, therefore red meat can have a place in the healthy diet. The UK government advises you to have no more than 500g of cooked meat a week - a small sirloin steak is about 160g.