Scientists have warned us time and again of the cancer risks of eating processed meat on a regular basis. Numerous studies have shown a link between an increased risk for bowel cancer and high consumption of processed meat. But exactly how much processed meat does it take to put people at risk for bowel cancer?

A recent study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology and funded by Cancer Research UK, looked at the average consumption of processed meat in the UK – which is 76 grams per day – and whether or not this amount increases risk for bowel cancer. Government guidelines recommend eating no more than 70 grams per day.

The findings? Even moderate eating increases bowel cancer risk.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after reviewing more than a decade’s worth of research, classified processed meat as a “definite cause of cancer” last 2015. However, the IARC does not specify the exact amount of cancer a carcinogenic substance causes.

Categorically speaking, bacon and tobacco are grouped together in terms of the degree of certainty that they cause cancer; but statistically speaking, tobacco has caused a lot more cases of cancer than processed meat.

Below is a graphic that illustrates the IARC’s Carcinogenic Classification Groups, as shared on

Previous studies have established that the accumulation in the bowel of three chemicals that are either added during meat processing, produced when the meat is cooked, or naturally present in meat can be specifically linked to increased bowel cancer risk:

  • Nitrates and nitrites, which are added to processed meat to keep it fresher for longer;
  • Two types of amines (heterocyclic and polycyclic amines) which are produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures; and
  • Haem, which gives red meat its color.

According to the results of the aforementioned study, which looked at the moderate consumption of processed meat by half a million UK adults, the risk for bowel cancer increases by 20% more compared to those with low consumption.

More specifically, 48 out of every 10,000 study participants who consumed 76 grams of processed meat per day were diagnosed with bowel cancer, compared to 40 out of every 10,000 who consumed 21 grams per day.

According to Professor Tim Key, co-author of the recent study and Deputy Director at the University of Oxford’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit, “The data from our study does suggest that eating little to no processed and red meat lowers the risk of bowel cancer, but the increased risk at lower intakes is small so this doesn’t imply that everyone needs to give up meat altogether.” (Ibid.)

To significantly reduce or completely eliminate bowel cancer risk, avoiding processed meat or keeping consumption to a minimum should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle, which should include regular physical activity, moderate to zero alcohol consumption, and maintaining a healthy weight.

For teenagers who regularly consume processed meat, parents should take note of the fact that the cell damage caused by processed meat consumption and which can lead to bowel cancer is cumulative. This means that the younger they start eating processed meat on a regular basis, the higher the probability that they’ll develop bowel cancer later in life. This study stresses even more the importance of helping our children develop healthy eating habits as early as possible.

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