What You Really Need to Know About the IARC Report on Red Meat and Processed Meat

Jean L Clavelle

Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

By now you’ve likely heard the news that red meats and processed meats are considered carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC – the cancer agency of the World Health Organization – released its findings yesterday after evaluating the carcinogenicity of consuming red meat and processed meat.

I think many of us, on occasion, have enjoyed products in those two categories so if the news reports are true, this is quite disturbing. Scary stuff indeed. Perhaps though, we need to investigate a little further into what these classifications really mean to see how concerned we actually need to be.

The IARC classified processed meats as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans. This means that “there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer”. I’m not sure this is new information. If processed meats make up the bulk of the nutrients in your diet you might suffer some health issues. But you may notice that processed meats were included in the same category as tobacco smoke. This begs the question – are processed meats as carcinogenic as smoking?? The answer is absolutely not. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence a compound or “agent” has of being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of the risk. Based on the estimates found in the report about 66 in every 1000 people who eat a lot of processed meat will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime. By comparison, 56 of every 1000 who eat very little meat will also develop colorectal cancer.

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