Meat and cancer

There is now a clear body of evidence that bowel cancer is more common among those who eat the most red and processed meat. Processed meat consumption has also been strongly linked to a higher risk of stomach cancer.

The World Health Organization has classified processed meats – including ham, salami, bacon and frankfurts – as a Group 1 carcinogen which means that there is strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer. Red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork has been classified as a ‘probable’ cause of cancer. These classifications do not indicate the risk of getting cancer, rather how certain we are that these things are likely to cause cancer.

Research commissioned by Cancer Council estimates that in 2010, one in six (or 2600) new bowel cancer cases in Australia were associated with consuming too much red meat and processed meat.

Lean red meat can be an important source of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein. In terms of cancer risk there is no reason to cut red meat completely from your diet, but by limiting the amount you eat, you can reduce your risk of cancer.

There is not enough evidence to draw any conclusions on eating poultry and the risk of cancer. However, eating fish may help to reduce the risk of bowel, breast and prostate cancer.

Red meat may affect cancer risk because naturally occurring chemicals formed during digestion have been found to damage the cells that line the bowel, which may cause cancer. Processed meat is often made from red meat and it also contains added nitrates and nitrites which are also broken-down during digestion to form chemicals that can cause cancer. Another factor could be that those who eat a lot of meat may miss out on eating other protective foods such as fruit and vegetables or wholegrain cereals.

How much meat should I eat?

To reduce your risk of cancer, Cancer Council recommends eating no more than 455g cooked red meat per week. This is equal to 700g of raw meat. This could be a small 65g serve of cooked meat each day or 2 serves (130g) 3-4 times a week.

Cancer Council recommends people limit or avoid eating processed meats. Not only do they contain nitrites, they are also high in saturated fat and salt. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating considers processed meats to be ‘discretionary choices’ that should only be eaten occasionally. Examples of other discretionary choices that should only be eaten occasionally include fast food, cakes, confectionary and chips.

Try to choose lean cuts of meat or chicken, have more fish and make sure you eat plenty of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals.

What is a recommended serve?
A serve of red meat is equal to 90-100g raw or 65g cooked:

  • ½ cup mince
  • 2 small chops
  • 2 slices roast meat

When shopping, use the raw meat guidelines to work out how much to buy for a meal. For example, for a family of four buy 400g lean steak or mince.

In Australia, fresh sausages do not contain nitrates or nitrites, however, they are high in saturated fat and salt and are best eaten occasionally.

Substitutes for 1 serve of red meat include:

  • 80g cooked or 100g raw chicken or turkey
  • 100g cooked or 115g raw fish fillet or 1 small can of fish
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup cooked lentils, chick peas, split peas, dried or canned beans
  • 30g nuts e.g. peanuts or almonds
  • 170g tofu or tempeh

Meal ideas

  • Reduce the amount of red meat on your dinner plate and fill at least half your plate with different coloured vegetables
  • Use more vegetables and legumes in recipes e.g. add carrot, celery, mushrooms, peas and lentils to Bolognese sauce and chick peas to curries
  • Eat a meat-free meal at least once every week. Try a vegetable-based pasta, risotto, frittata, soup or curry
  • Use fish or chicken in curries, casseroles, pastas, salads and sandwiches
  • Replace processed meat such as ham, bacon, prosciutto or pepperoni with chicken, mushrooms, eggplant, tomato, capsicum, baked beans or cheese. Add extra flavour with herbs, smoked paprika or chilli
  • Look at the ingredients list and avoid meats that contain nitrates or nitrites (additives 249, 250, 251 or 252)

Cooking tips

  • Buy lean mince, lean cuts of meat and avoid marbled meat
  • Trim visible fat from meat before cooking
  • Use lower fat cooking methods such as steaming, poaching, stir-frying and pan-frying with a small amount of poly or mono unsaturated oil
  • Avoid burning meat – marinate meat to prevent burning, add flavour and to keep meat tender
  • Try lower temperature cooking methods such as casseroling, slow roasting or microwaving
Barbecues and charred meat Some research suggests that burnt or charred meat may increase the risk of cancer. Substances called heterocyclic amines are formed in foods that are cooked at high temperatures and blackened or charred. In animal studies, heterocyclic amines are carcinogenic (cancer causing). However, the evidence in human studies is not clear. It is recommended not to overcook or blacken meat on the barbecue. Marinating meat first prevents foods from charring. As well as keeping potential cancer-causing agents down in the meat, marinating also keeps meat tender and adds flavour to your meal. You can also use gentler cooking methods such as casseroling, boiling or microwave heating rather than high-temperature grilling, pan-frying or barbecuing when cooking.

See the  Meat and Cancer Position Statement for more information.

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