Red and processed meat still pose cancer risk, warn global health experts

Top health organisations and global cancer experts are urging the public to continue following the recommendation to limit red meat intake to three portions a week and eat little, if any, processed meat for cancer prevention

30 September 2019

This statement comes after a consortium, known as NutriRECS, claimed that most people do not need to reduce or moderate how much red and processed meat they eat. However, top health organisations as well as global research experts in the field have looked at the analysis from NutriRECS and disagree with their interpretation of the scientific evidence.

The NutriRECS research results are not significantly different from what World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research’s 2018 report found, and indeed seem to verify WCRF/AICR’s findings. However, the NutriRECS researchers have made what is a confusing interpretation of the results which has led to this unnecessary recommendation to the public. By looking at the average amount of red and processed meat that people eat in the US and Europe, they have decided that there is no need to recommend for most people to reduce or moderate the amount they eat.

Furthermore, the NutriRECS recommendation does not separate out red and processed meat and this suggests that three or four portions of processed meat a week do not affect cancer risk significantly enough to warrant a reduction in the amount people eat; this conclusion from NutriRECS is not supported by the scientific evidence. The best available evidence supports an increased cancer risk.

Cancer experts agree that eating too much red meat and processed meat does increase our risk of bowel cancer, and that some people are already eating above the recommended amount.

Dr Giota Mitrou, Director of Research at WCRF, said: “The public could be put at risk if they interpret this new recommendation to mean they can continue eating as much red and processed meat as they like without increasing their risk of cancer. However, this is not the case. The message people need to hear is that we should be eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and eat little, if any, processed meat. We stand by our rigorous research of the last 30 years and urge the public to follow the current recommendations on red and processed meat.”

Dr Nigel Brockton, Vice President of Research at AICR, said: “We stand by the rigor of our research methodology and our Cancer Prevention Recommendation that people should limit red meat intake to less than 12–18oz per week and avoid processed meat. The underlying results reported by the NutriRECS group are actually consistent with this advice. However, their interpretation of the strength of these findings differs from the conclusions reached by the WCRF/AICR Continuous Update Project Expert Panel. Regularly eating processed meat, and higher consumption of red meat, increases your risk of colorectal cancer; suggesting that there is no need to limit these foods would put people at risk of colorectal cancer and further undermine public confidence in dietary advice.”

It’s important for people to remember that limiting how much red and processed meat we eat is only one part of lowering cancer risk. To most effectively reduce our overall risk, we should follow a healthy pattern of living. This includes not smoking, minimising alcohol intake, being a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and staying physically active.