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Processed meat causes cancer; red meat probably does, too: WHO

It's been linked with breast cancer, colon cancer and may worsen prostate cancer.

Processed meat, such as bacon or hot dogs, causes cancer, a World Health Organization group said in a long-awaited determination on Monday. The group said red meat, including beef, pork and lamb, probably causes cancer, too.

Many studies show the links, both in populations of people and in tests that show how eating these foods can cause cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said in its report, released in the Lancet medical journal.

"Red meat refers to unprocessed mammalian muscle meat—for example, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat—including minced or frozen meat; it is usually consumed cooked," the IARC said in its report.

Hotdogs are prepared at an event in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)
Hotdogs are prepared at an event in Washington, D.C.

"Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but might also contain other red meats, poultry, offal (eg, liver), or meat byproducts such as blood."

It's not startling news - the evidence has been building for years that eating meat, especially processed and red meat, raises the risk of cancer.

It's been linked with breast cancer, colon cancer and may worsen prostate cancer.

The IARC assembled a team of experts to review all the evidence.

"Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as 'carcinogenic to humans' on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer," the report reads.

"Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for stomach cancer. The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as 'probably carcinogenic to humans.'" It added.

"Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer."

The U.S. National Cancer Institute says several more studies are ongoing to assess the risk.

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