Should I eat processed meat?

Edited excerpts from the Observer Food Monthly collaboration with Dr Ali Khavandi and Dara Mohammadi

Quality over quantity

Bacon sandwiches are one of life’s little pleasures. The only problem is that the World Health Organisation has classified bacon, along with all other processed meats, as a group-1 carcinogen – up there with cigarettes, plutonium, asbestos and uranium.

But the picture is a little more nuanced. Traditionally we lumped red and processed meats together in these scientific analyses. Only recently have the two been separated out, showing that for cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease, a sensible amount of red meat is probably fine – processed meat, it seems, had been the stronger contributor to disease and had been tipping the balance. But, in terms of risk, is a 30% meat sausage really the same as a cured, air-dried Iberico ham? The truth is that nobody knows.

“There are some mechanistic explanations for why processed meats might cause colorectal or bowel cancer,” says Louis Levy, Head of Nutrition Science at Public Health England (PHE), “such as something carcinogenic that happens during the cooking process or something used to preserve them.”

Given the incomplete picture, PHE advises a limit of 70g of red or processed meat a day. The reason for 70g? It’s to ensure that the people who eat meat will still get the iron benefits of nutrient-dense red meats. But this seemingly sensible guideline falls foul of a familiar problem – it lumps all red and processed meats together.

Another possibility for the link between processed meat and disease, Levy says, is confounding: studies have shown that people who eat excessive amounts of processed meats have otherwise poor diets and unhealthy lifestyles which increase their likelihood of disease; given the severity of the potential consequences, only a fool would be flippant about the risk.

Try to favour red meat over processed meat and choose quality over quantity because there are other benefits to cutting back on meat. Your shopping will be cheaper. You’ll be able to eat more oily fish, vegetables, nuts and fibre. And, given the enormous amount of carbon the meat industry pumps into the air, if you go veggie for a few days a week you’ll be doing your bit for the planet.

Back to top