News - October 30, 2015

‘The link between processed meat and cancer was already known’

Rob Ramaker

Eating processed meat such as ham and sausages increases the risk of cancer, announced the IARC, an agency of the World Health Organization, this week. The report caused quite a furore in the Netherlands. But this link has been known for a long time, says Ellen Kampman, professor of Nutrition and Disease. She thinks it’s a good thing that attention is being drawn to that link once again.

Is it odd that the WHO is publishing that report now?
‘Of course this link is not new; we’ve known this for years. But it is good that other experts have taken another good look at the literature, and have drawn the same conclusions. And it makes a difference that an influential organization such as the WHO is saying this.’

The results have been misinterpreted here and there. Red and processed meats are suddenly being presented as just as dangerous as asbestos or smoking.
‘I’ve been seeing that confusion too. These things are indeed in the same category, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the strength of the evidence or how carcinogenic something is. Red meat is definitely not as dangerous as smoking.’

Will the report change anything about the advice we get about healthy eating?
‘No, the recommendation will stay at maximum 500 grams of red meat a week. That means eating red meat not more than five times a week. You should also keep your consumption of processed meat as low as possible. I’ve been trying to highlight that recommendation for years and it’s nice that it is now getting so much attention.’

And is it clear why meat raises the risks of cancer?
It appears that ferrous iron in red meat can damage the lining of the gut. Research has been done on that in Wageningen too, by Sander Kersten’s current group for instance. The way we prepare meat at home makes a difference as well. Charred meat contains substances also found in cigarette smoke. Luckily an experiment we did in Ede showed that the Dutch are not fond of that kind of extremely well-done meat. Keep it that way!’