Ask the RD · Nutrition

Ask the RD: Processed Meats & Cancer Risk

This question comes from a recent blog post that introduces my experimentation into a ketogenic diet. I referenced consumption of bacon, a common processed meat product.

Q: Does processed meat cause cancer?

Intake of processed meat has been found to be risk factor for cancer. In fact, in comparison to consumption of fresh red meat, eating processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, and corned beef, may increase ones’ risk of developing colorectal cancer up to tenfold.

Yet despite the aforementioned fact, the evidence for processed meat intake in causing cancer is relatively weak and there are many compounding variables to consider. While smoking has been shown to be a strong risk factor for cancer, the same cannot be said for eating processed meats.

A few theories do exist to explain the potential relationship between processed meat intake and cancer. Briefly, they include:

  1. Nitrites. Nitrites are additives added to meat products to prevent bacterial growth and provide coloring. Nitrites are carcinogens (cancer-causing molecules).
  2. People who eat the most processed meat also tend to eat a lot of high sugar foods (sweets, desserts, potatoes), and fewer anti-oxidant-rich foods (vegetables and fruit). A high intake of sugary foods and low-intake of vegetables and fruit are independently associated with increased cancer risk.

So considering the above, what is one to do to increase their risk of cancer? Simply avoiding intake of processed meats is one option. If you’re like me and want to enjoy a moderate amount of bacon and sausage, here are some tips-

  1. Look for nitrite-free processed meats available at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and many other “regular” grocery stores. Some of the brands I buy include Pederson’s, Applegate, and Whole Foods 365. I prefer to purchase organic meats, and the same goes for my processed meat products.
  2. Your mom was right; Eat your veggies! Vegetables and fruits are abundant sources of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber, which counteract the harmful effects of any nitrites you may be consuming through meat and processed meat products. Greens and citrus fruits are especially rich in ascorbic acid (fancy name for vitamin C), which has been shown to limit the effects of nitrites in our digestive tracts.
  3. See the big picture. Does eating bacon in the context of a high-fat, high-sugar Western diet and sedentary lifestyle, have the same effects as eating it as part of a low-sugar, plant-based diet with plenty of physical activity. Likely not. My advice; feel free to eat moderate amounts of organic, nitrite-free processed meat products alongside a big salad, and follow-it up with some physical activity.
Reference: Santarelli, R. L., Pierre, F., & Corpet, D. E. (2008). Processed meat and colorectal cancer: a review of epidemiologic and experimental evidence. Nutrition and Cancer, 60(2), 131–144.

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