For many people, processed meats are a staple in their diets. After all, processed meats don’t just include the occasional hot dog at a ball game; they also include the deli meat on your sandwich, the pepperoni on your pizza, the salami on your charcuterie board, and the bacon on your breakfast plate.
With processed meats being so common, is there reason to be concerned about their possible health effects, including their potential to increase your risk for cancer? The short answer is yes. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meats as a Group 1 human carcinogen, which is any substance known to cause cancer. If a carcinogen is classified in Group 1, it means there is sufficient scientific evidence that it can cause cancer. Group 1 carcinogens also include things like tobacco smoking and asbestos, but this does not mean that they are equally as dangerous. Instead, the classification describes the strength of the scientific evidence for its association with cancer, but not the level of risk.
Here, learn what the research says about how eating processed meat could impact your cancer risk and what to consider when adding processed meats to your plate.
What are processed meats?
Processed meats are meats that are cured, smoked, fermented, or chemically treated with preservatives to help them stay fresh longer. They’re often tasty and affordable, which can make them a convenient option for many consumers.
Processed meats include:
Sausage, including bratwursts or breakfast links and patties
Salami, pepperoni, and other cured meats
Deli meats, including roast beef, ham, and turkey
Canned meats, including corned beef
Some chicken nuggets
How does eating processed meats impact cancer risk?
In 2015, more than 20 experts from 10 different countries met to evaluate the cancer risk associated with eating red and processed meats. Called the International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group, the experts evaluated more than 800 studies that investigated eating red meat or processed meat in various countries and across diets.
The experts determined that consuming processed meats can cause cancer in humans. This determination was based on research finding an increased risk for colorectal cancer in people who ate processed meats. They also observed an association between processed meats and stomach cancer. While the increase in cancer risk was small in the studies reviewed, the researchers found that the risk generally increased the more a person consumed processed meat.
Keep in mind, determining your individual risk for cancer is complex and not based on 1 factor alone. Rather, it includes accounting for many other health and lifestyle factors, such as whether you use tobacco or not, your weight, family history, physical activity level, overall diet, and your exposure to the sun.
Why does the link between processed meats and cancer exist?
Studies suggest that processed meats may have certain characteristics that increase the risk for cancer. For example, manufacturers may use high heat or smoke to process meat, and consumers may use high heat on the stove or grill to cook processed meats. Chemical byproducts of high heat, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are being studied for their cancer-causing properties.
Manufacturers often also use chemical preservatives like nitrates and nitrites when processing meats. These preservatives are linked to the production of cancer-causing compounds called N-nitroso compounds (NOCs). In a 2022 study, researchers found that people who consumed high levels of potassium nitrate as a food additive had a higher risk of breast cancer than people who did not consume them. Also, people who consumed high levels of sodium nitrite as a food additive had a higher risk of prostate cancer than people who did not consume them. The author noted that these results need confirmation in other large-scale studies.
What should you consider when purchasing processed meats?
Many processed meats are high in saturated fat, salt, and added sugars, so reducing the amount of those found in the products you buy could help improve your overall diet and health.
When shopping for processed meats, phrases like “nitrate and nitrite-free” or “uncured” on the packaging may also catch your eye. However, in 2019, advocacy groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), saying that these kinds of labels can be misleading, as they imply that the foods are healthy. These advocates argue that these products, which often use ingredients like celery powder, contain just as many nitrates or nitrites as their synthetically preserved counterparts. In addition to a plan to prohibit these labels, the USDA said in 2020 that it would establish new definitions of cured and uncured meats.
For now, international experts like the American Cancer Society and the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety say reducing the amount of processed meats in your diet is key.
“‘All’ or ‘nothing’ are not the only choices when it comes to processed meats. One type of food will not make or break your healthy lifestyle. For some people, there are certain processed meats that they can’t live without—bacon with Sunday brunch, pepperoni on pizza night, or a deli meat lunch sandwich. A savvy consumer can find a way to minimize intake of processed meats and balance that out by incorporating lots of minimally processed, health-promoting plant foods into their week.” – Julie Lanford, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, a registered dietitian and the author and creator of CancerDietitian.com
What are the current dietary recommendations around eating processed meat?
The World Cancer Research Fund International recommends eating little, if any, processed meat. According to experts at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, World Cancer Research Fund International, and others, eating less than 21 grams of processed meat per week qualifies as eating little if any processed meat. For context, hot dogs are typically 49 grams and 2 slices of bacon are roughly 12 grams, according to the USDA FoodData Central database.
The USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services do not specify a recommended amount of processed meat in their dietary guidelines. However, they recommend eating nutrient-dense foods with few added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, which can include lean meats and poultry.
For cancer survivors, particularly colorectal cancer survivors, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting the consumption of red or processed meat.
Be sure to talk with your doctor if you have questions about whether your processed meat intake could be impacting your health and ask for their recommendations on processed meat intake.
The information in this post is based on the current research and expert opinions available today. These findings may change as more research into this topic emerges.