An English breakfast, bangers and mash, a bacon butty, and the traditional Sunday roast: dishes synonymous with the great British cuisine.
But when the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently said that eating processed meat can cause bowel cancer, and red meat probably causes cancer, many people became concerned that their favourite dinners could be harmful to their health.
Tonight at 7.30pm on ITV How Safe is Meat? examines the evidence behind the WHO’s announcement, and puts the risks of eating meat in context. Reporter Fiona Foster speaks to leading scientists, medical professionals and representatives of the meat industry to find out: do you really need to bin your bacon buttie?
The WHO research
The WHO found a link between the consumption of processed meat and bowel cancer. Processed meat is any meat transformed through salting, curing or smoking: including sausages, bacon, ham and salami.
The cancer is thought to be caused in part by preservatives: nitrites which are added to processed meat to kill bacteria, extend shelf life, and alter the appearance (eg. make bacon more pink).
Reading University’s Dr Gunter Kuhnle explains that these nitrites react with protein in the meat to form carcinogenic compounds. When they reach our colon or gut, the compounds sometimes seem to cause cell mutations, leading to the growth of cancer.
The WHO found that every 50g of processed meat per day we eat - around one sausage or two rashers of bacon - increases our risk of bowel cancer by 18 percent.
Listing it as a ‘Group 1’ carcinogenic, the WHO put processed meat into the same category as plutonium, asbestos and tobacco, causing widespread concern. Since the publication of the WHO’s findings last month, supermarkets across the UK have reported a £3m drop in sales of sausages and bacon.
The WHO also said that the consumption of red meat, including beef, lamb and pork, is also probably carcinogenic, finding that every 100g of red meat was probably associated with a 17 percent increase in the risk of bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, with 16,000 deaths due to the disease every year, and over 40,000 new cases annually. The WHO scientists considered 800 research papers before concluding that the balance of evidence confirmed a link between the consumption of processed meat and bowel cancer.
Eddie Cain, a bowel cancer survivor, told Fiona Foster that while he couldn't say whether meat consumption had caused his illness, he now pays far more attention to his diet, eating meat in moderation.
What's the risk?
However, despite some worrying headlines, Tonight found that while there is a proven link between processed meat and bowel cancer, other Group 1 carcinogens like tobacco are far more dangerous to our health. In reality, that 18 percent increase means that instead of our risk of developing bowel cancer being around 6 in 100, eating 50g processed meat a day raises that risk by 1 percent, to around 7 in 100. Of course, the more meat you eat, the more you increase your chance of developing cancer.
Dr Kathryn Bradbury, from Oxford University, says that while it’s a good idea to cut down on our meat intake if we are eating a lot, the risk to our health is much lower than smoking.
"It’s estimated that about twenty percent of all cancers are caused by tobacco smoke whereas only about three percent would be caused by red and processed meat.”
– DR KATHRYN BRADBURY, OXFORD UNIVERSITY
Meanwhile, meat producers are concerned that any miscommunication of the WHO’s research could impact their business. Nearly 900,000 British jobs rely on meat production, and the industry is estimated to be worth almost £2bn a year to our economy.
Moderating the risk
Before the latest warnings linking meat to cancer, the government was already recommending a limit of 70 grams of meat per day. But research shows that around 40 percent of men and 10 percent of women eat more than that.
Nutritionist Hala el-Shafie highlights that red meat contains key nutrients.
"It's a great source of protein, rich in vitamin B12 and iron, and in moderation can be a particularly useful source in our diets." Hala El-Shafie.
However, she says, it's important to ensure we are also consuming enough fibre. El-Shafie says that one way to reduce our meat intake is by bulking out meat dishes with vegetables, or perhaps having a meat-free meal.
The NHS is currently extending its bowel cancer screening scheme to those aged 55 and over.