A recent study from Queen’s University Belfast found that processed meat containing sodium nitrite – a preservative used to extend shelf life and enhance color – is linked to a higher colon cancer risk (65%) than processed meat does not have the nutrient (50%).
The findings showed that not all processed meats carry the same level of cancer risk.
The study is published in Nutrients. One author is Professor Chris Elliott OBE.
The WHO classified all processed meat as a carcinogen in 2015 – including bacon, sausages, and ham as well as continental European products like prosciutto and salami.
Not all processed meat, however, contains nitrites.
In the study, the team reviewed existing peer-reviewed literature on the relationship between processed meat and the development of bowel, colon, and rectal cancers.
They found big evidence gaps between processed meat treated with nitrites and nitrite-free processed meat.
When they initially reviewed all recent studies into the consumption of processed meat and cancer risk, they found the results inconclusive:
Around half the studies evidenced a link with colon cancer. This explains the appearance of contradictory claims in the media in recent years.
But when they isolated research which only tested the consumption of processed meat containing sodium nitrite, the cancer risk increased strongly.
British and Irish sausages, for example, are not processed with nitrites, even though many of the Continental and US sausage equivalents – like frankfurters, pepperoni, and chorizo – are.
Some newer types of bacon and ham, processed without nitrites, are also appearing on the market.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers believe there is a need to define the health risk of both types of processed meat – separately.
They suggest that it is important people eat a healthy, balanced diet. The current Department of Health guidance advises the public to consume no more than 70g of red or processed meat per day.
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