Special Report: Meat and Cancer

By October 29, 2015 Nutrition

A World Health Organization report contains nothing new: Don’t eat processed meats because they contain cancer-causing chemicals. Red meat may be dangerous, too, when overcooked.

Last week the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, published an analysis linking colorectal cancer to the consumption of processed meat. They also said the risk “probably” exists for red meat; however, the risk is not from eating the meat but cooking it too much.

Healthy consumers need not be concerned about the IARC report. Healthy people avoid junk food, ensuring processed meats stay out of our diets. And by eating adequate vegetables and other natural foods (including naturally unprocessed meats) full of antioxidants and other phytonutrients, we can counter the effects of cooking natural meats, especially if we avoid overcooking and burning.

The IARC report was based on population studies over the past 20 years. Applying these studies in real life poses a problem for two reasons:

  1. Only recently have studies made the distinction between processed and natural meat. The IARC report separates processed meats, moving them into a high-risk cancer category.
  2. None of these studies are applicable to one individual, especially those of us who choose a balanced diet, exercise and follow healthy lifestyles.

The IARC report states, “Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”

Healthy meats, however, are in a lower risk category “based on limited evidence” according to the IARC report. These meats don’t directly cause cancer, but only when they are cooked. Burning meats, such as during grilling, can produce cancer-causing chemicals but these can be significantly reduced by turning meats frequently, avoiding burning and cooking until well-done, and eating phytonutrient-rich foods (such as broccoli and other nutrient-dense vegetables) to destroy these chemicals.

The media frenzy against meat-eating has been ongoing, much like the anti-fat crusade. Yet they don’t make as much a fuss over the facts regarding refined carbohydrates, including sugar, and its relation to much higher levels of chronic disease.  Additionally, overcooking carbohydrates also produces cancer-causing substances called acrylamides. We never hear much about this in the media, but it is true.

The new IARC report did not make any recommendations, but I will: Eat a balanced diet high in vegetables, containing meat, eggs and other healthy proteins, and healthy fats, while avoiding all junk food.

Let’s look at comments in the IARC report:

  • Processed meats like hot dogs and sausages have added chemicals. Scientists have long worried that this chemical processing leads to the formation of potentially carcinogenic chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in these products.
  • The concern with natural, unprocessed meats has more to do with grilling, barbecuing and pan-frying meat, which creates potential carcinogens such heterocyclic aromatic amines.
  • The report finds a link between consumption of processed meats and colorectal cancer (and perhaps other cancers), but also acknowledged that the link between red meat and cancer has not been proved.
  • The reports acknowledged that it is not known whether red meat causes cancer: “Eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer,” the IARC stated in a handout accompanying its report.

Of course, we can eat too much of a good thing. The average American eats more than 70 pounds of meat per year — clearly this is associated with a diet without balance mostly because the majority of this meat is processed. Making the switch to natural meats with a lot of vegetables, nuts and seeds, healthy fats and other aspects of a balanced diet, and more than adequate nutrition follows.

Good logic is important to balance media hysteria.

Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said of the IARC report on NBCnews.com “Bottom line: Eat less and better meat. Better for you, better for the planet.”

As part of a balanced diet, healthy meat can actually help stave off cancer. Christopher Wild, Director of IARC, agreed that despite their report, “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value.”

The most important messages people should take from the IARC report:

  • Avoid junk food meat.
  • Eat a balanced diet void of other junk food.
  • Don’t give up eating properly cooked healthy meat because it provides so many benefits.
  • Processed meats, of course, include virtually all those found in fast food restaurants, pre-made burgers, sausages, hot dogs, deli meats, and similar items. As reported by CNN, a study from Clear Labs found 10 percent of vegetarian hot dogs contain meat.

Healthy people know to avoid processed meats and other junk food, but consumers are too often duped into buying unhealthy meats because they are labeled as natural, organic or found in health-food stores. Consumer beware.

No doubt processed meats are unhealthy choices. They are in the category of junk food. Just look at the labels and you’ll see the long list of ingredients often hard to pronounce, let alone knowing what these chemicals are, including sugar. Almost all the meat in fast-food restaurants is also dangerous, especially ground meats which often have fillers (especially flour), sugar, artificial preservatives, coloring and other unwanted chemicals.

Meanwhile, there is a lack of scientific consensus on eating healthy meat — those items include real pieces of beef, lamb, pork and other foods that have not been processed with chemicals.

While there are no scientific recommendations that people avoid eating healthy meat, there are warnings to avoid eating many types of fish and seafood as water pollution has become a major health concern.

And by the way, being overweight, using tobacco and consuming alcohol beyond moderation increases the risk of colorectal cancer much more significantly than does processed meat.

Avoid all these bad habits. The real keys to lowering the risk of all chronic diseases are eating several servings of vegetables, some fruit and aerobic exercise.


  • Chip Conley says:

    Dr. Phil,
    I eat 95% as you suggest, but occasionally indulge and will have a burger, hot dog or pizza. I train 15 hours a week and average 45 miles a week running. I’m 6’1″ and weigh 170lbs, is it okay to eat comfort foods once a week?

  • KDave says:

    Question regarding the below statement- “Burning meats, such as during grilling, can produce cancer-causing chemicals but these can be significantly reduced by turning meats frequently, avoiding burning and cooking until well-done, and eating phytonutrient-rich foods (such as broccoli and other nutrient-dense vegetables) to destroy these chemicals.”

    Question- Are you saying that we should avoid cooking meat until well done? Aren’t there concerns around eating raw or under cooked meat as well ?

    • KDave:

      Medium-well is a healthy option. Also, cooking say, bacon thoroughly but before it turns crispy is the same idea.

      There are concerns about eating undercooked meat (the ones we all know) but there’s a very wide safe zone where meat is neither burnt nor undercooked. Cooking meat on a pan instead of a grill solves 90% of this issue.

  • TBL says:

    I have not read the study from IARC, but have only read different summaries. So, i propose a question. Is the problem associated with the type of meat, or the chemicals/processing agents that are used in the meats? Is there a list of either meats or chemicals to avoid that can be obtained for the public to have in hand? The more concrete info we can have in hand the more powerful we are as a society. If there is such a list please share. Thank you. TBL

  • Saverio Di Poce says:

    My father died of colon cancer in the 90 He did a lot of meat barbecuing.What i did not like, was the way barbecuing cooks the meat using propane.I can see the propane gases attaching to the meat while it’s cooking it.I think that that process should be outlawed

  • John says:

    As ever it comes down to balance & keeping it simple, going for quality not quantity and looking at the whole picture, not the latest headline. I come from a farming family of healthy people raised on lots of vegetables, beef, pork and full cream!

  • wade smith says:

    Nice article. Sensible logic however does not make good headlines. This WHO press release was a summary of the actual data. They point out a 18% incidence of colon cancer for those consuming bacon each day. Sounds awful until you consider that the risk in the USA for a male 50 years on up is about 1.7%. AN 18% risk increase means the chances will be 1.8%. A lot of this hyperbole adds to the hysteria of extreme diets and eating. On the other hand, there are no large epidemiological or population based studies showing associations with high fat diets and longevity/health, that I am aware of. Lot’s of the opposite, however. While everyone can argue about the particular methodologies of different studies, there are few documented longevity cultures that are high meat and fat, low carb eaters. This doesn’t necessarily mean meat and fat are bad but it is of some concern for those of us already exercising and eating whole food diets: i.e. which whole foods will keep us healthiest? I would be interested in an article that examined the higher fat, whole food recommendations of Dr Maffetone with the population research supporting plant based diets with smaller amounts of healthy fat and animal products. Keep up the good work.

  • Randy says:

    Since we are on the subject of meat, would you have any recommendations for a healthy way to make beef jerky from organic grass fed cattle?

    • Randy:

      Dehydrating is probably the best option. However, I think smoking meats (provided your fuel is organic and devoid of chemicals) should work just fine. Sitting around a campfire singing country songs is probably worse for your health. Furthermore, the increase in risk by eating smoked meats periodically is minuscule. Given that, if eating a bit of smoked meat is what tips the scale from health to illness, there are much more serious problems that you haven’t been paying attention to.

  • jaysterj says:

    That Halloween candy looks yummy!

  • Lance says:

    As for the risk of acrylamides:
    This refers to the general, SAD eating public, who eat less than 10% of their calories from antioxidant rich fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes. So unless you turn all your meals into charcoal, there are bigger issues to worry about.

  • Barbara Cowan says:

    My father passed away in 1972 from stomach cancer and at that time there was research into processed foods and BBQ-d meats. We were questioned about his eating habits by a medical research firm as he was a Butcher by trade, learned his trade in Europe, and of course, ate processed meats (he made them) and BBQ’d meat frequently.
    This news isn’t anything new, its been around since then, at least. Why all the media hype – must of been a slow news day.

  • Laura says:

    Thanks, Phil! Always helpful!

  • phillip boelen says:

    Hi. I thought this article was a well balanced piece. I have arguments with straight out vegans that their concern about meat, processed or non processed that animal protein causes cancer. I have argued all through that small amounts of meat per week and not burnt will not give you cancer a well balanced diet as Dr Phil maffetone always says. Can Phil write an article about the relationship between meat protein and plant protein and there affects on the human body?

  • Thanks Phil for the common sense advice. No changes in my menu. Lets hope the world does not substitute the farm fresh bacon for more muffins. Dr Mark Cucuzzella

  • Jo says:

    Thanks Phil for this very sensible and useful summary of the report. One question; I have been told that smoked fish should be treated with the same caution as processed meat? Is this correct? Something to do with nitrates?

  • Luiz says:

    What about bacon? Is it to be considered processed meat and to be avoided as well?

  • Frederick says:

    Would baking in the oven and using the crockpot be recommended ways to cook meat?

  • Luke says:

    My favorite part (beyond the solid dose of good information)- “Good logic is important to balance media hysteria.”

    • phillip boelen says:

      Hi this a very well written article, There has been lots of heated discussion about meat diet. I have had some heavy discussion with vegans about the meat debate. MMMMMMM. Dr Phil maffetone gives a great logical answer to the meat hysteria.

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