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Get the Facts on Processed Meat and Cancer

November 24, 2015 by Dean Simmons, Registered Dietitian

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Get the Facts on Processed Meat and Cancer

If you and your family love eating hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham and cold cuts, you may have been troubled by the mass media coverage following a new study, which found that eating these types of processed meats causes colorectal cancer. On top of that, red meat was identified as a probable cause of colorectal cancer. The risk of cancer appears to increase with the amount of red and processed meat you eat. What does this all mean? Let’s break it down.

What are processed meats?

  • Processed meat is meat that has been salted, cured, fermented or smoked to enhance its flavour or extend its shelf life.
  • Examples of processed meat include: hot dogs (frankfurters), bacon, ham, sausages, cold cuts, deli meats and beef jerky.
  • Most processed meats are made with beef or pork. They can also be made with chicken, turkey or fish.

What are red meats?

  • Red meats typically eaten in Canada include: beef, veal, pork, lamb and goat.

Does this mean you can’t eat processed meats anymore?

  • There is enough scientific evidence to conclude that eating processed meat is a cause of colorectal cancer. If you regularly eat processed meat, this new report may motivate you to shift your food choices.
  • If you enjoy eating processed meats, limit them to occasional choices, like eating a hot dog once in a while at a sports game, rather than daily or weekly. It’s how you eat on a day-to-day basis that determines if your diet is healthy or not.
  • The idea of never eating bacon or a hot dog again might seem unreasonable to you. As a first step, try eating processed meats less often and in smaller portions.

What about grilling meat on the barbeque?

  • No need to sell the barbeque. Check out these cancer prevention tips for grilling safely.

Other food ideas instead of red or processed meat:

  • Choose an omelette filled with peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese instead of bacon or sausage with eggs for a weekend breakfast.
  • Choose roasted chicken, egg, tuna or salmon salad fillings in your sandwich or wrap rather than ham, cold cuts or bacon.
  • Explore options from other cultures like a Mediterranean falafel wrap, Mexican bean burrito or Japanese sushi.
  • Fresh chicken, turkey or fish can replace deli meats and cold cuts.
  • Try spicy vegetarian sausages (often found next to tofu in grocery stores).
  • Experiment with other high protein foods like eggs, cottage cheese, tofu and hummus.
  • Cut it out, swap it out and bulk it out. Check out this great infographic for ideas on how to reduce the amount of red and processed meat you eat.

About 50% of colorectal cancers can be prevented if you:

  • Eat a variety of high fibre foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lentils and beans.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol.
  • Reduce your intake of processed and red meats.
  • Make physical activity a regular part of your day.

Related blogs:

Prevent Cancer One Bite at a Time
Meatless Meals on the BBQ
Veggie Burgers for Meatless Monday
Why Salmon Should Make it on Your Menu

Recommended resources:

BC Cancer Agency: Colorectal Cancer
American Institute for Cancer Research: Bacon, Hot Dogs and Lunch Meat – Is it Processed Meat?
American Institute for Cancer Research: The Prevention of Colorectal Cancer
World Health Organization: Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat
World Health Organization Press Release: IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat
Cancer Research UK: Processed meat and cancer - what you need to know

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Comments (2)


Posted on Thursday November 26, 2015 a 3:20pm

Hi Dean
Curious to know if you have any opinions on Ostrich meat, which is considered a red meat, but ultra low in fat. I've heard good things about Ostrich and it seems that it is being carried by quite a few different stores and butcher shops. As for hot-dogs, it's a once a year event for me!


Posted on Friday November 27, 2015 a 4:13pm

Dear Aebleskive,

Thanks for your question. The International Agency for Research on Cancer did not evaluate cancer risk related to poultry in their monograph on red and processed meat. They describe red meat as “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”

Ostrich meat is red in colour and is typically classified as a red meat. While it is low in fat, ostrich meat is relatively high in iron and is prepared in many of the same ways as other red meats. In terms of cancer risk, there is not enough information currently available for us to know if cancer risks differ between various types of red meats.

If you enjoy eating red meats and are also interested in reducing your cancer risk, consider following the recommendation of the American Institute for Cancer Research and keep your total consumption of red meat to less than 500 g (18 oz.) of cooked meat per week. For more ideas on how to reduce your cancer risk check out these tips on eating a plant based diet (


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