Cancer: Carcinogenic foods

Last updated date: 16-Jul-2021

Herzliya Medical Center

4 mins read

A recent report regarding red meat and processed meat has caused quite a stir across the world: The daily consumption of (50g) meat increases the risk of developing colon cancer by 18%. Following this report by a unit of the World Health Organization (WHO), the future of the meat industry and how each state will address these new findings remains uncertain. One thing is clear – this may raise public awareness regarding how our lifestyle (and eating habits) may affect our health. A vast number of meat-eaters are taking precautions by undergoing colon cancer screenings.

Carcinogenic foods

The report published in The Lancet Oncology journal may also increase the demand for early screening and prevention of colon cancers and other types of cancer. It also claimed that eating red meat might cause pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer; processed meat may possibly cause stomach cancer.

The findings involved 22 experts from 10 countries reviewed 800 studies spanning over decades and including multiple countries. In conclusion, the group announced that a 50g portion of processed meat on a daily basis could increase the risk of colon cancer by 18%.

The arm of the WHO, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) bases a list of carcinogens into four categories, which consists of over 900 agents. The WHO places processed meat in the same category as tobacco and asbestos – “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1), while red meats are categorized as “probably carcinogenic” (Group 2A). It is important to note that this classification is based on scientific evidence on the (suspected) carcinogen, and not the level of risk of developing cancer. Other experts are baffled on how this data could be compared to that of smoking, which increases the risk of developing lung cancer twentyfold.

Meat and Cancer

The production of processed meats by smoking, fermentation, curing or salting among other methods (to enhance flavor or preserve) releases harmful chemicals that may be suspect carcinogens or (proven) carcinogens, while high cooking temperatures produces pyrolysis – known to cause mutations in colon cells. Prior to the screening, people should first be aware of the risk factors of colon cancer, followed by prevention measures and/ or guidelines.

Colon cancer screening

Understandably, this announcement has prompted many people (mostly meat lovers) around the world to take action for their health and make necessary lifestyle changes, such as cutting down the large quantities of meat in their diet. Prevention is key in cancer, particularly with regular screenings. After lung cancer, colon cancer is the second leading cause of death in Americans. Although the incidence rate of colon cancer is gradually decreasing in adults over 50, there has been an increase in younger patients. The decline in the number of colon cancer cases in the last 20 years is mainly due to colonoscopy screenings – which emphasizes its importance.

Screening – identifies a disease with or without symptoms. Screening aids in early detection, which is imperative to a successful outcome, foremost in cancer. Like most other cancers, a late diagnosis entails a tougher treatment regime, which is less effective as cancer has spread to other areas of the body (metastasis). Screening procedures include fecal occult blood tests (by the use of immunochemical and guaiac-based tests), CT colonography, flexible sigmoidoscopy, as well as colonoscopy (endoscopic examination of the colon) to check for polyps or cancer. Sigmoidoscopy allows for the examination of the lower colon and rectum, while a colonoscopy provides detail of the entire colon and rectum. Early removal of polyps (benign growths) from the lining of the colon can prevent the risk of developing colon cancer later in life. Screening for colon cancer is recommended from the age of 50 years or those with a family history or with a digestive disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Health officials around the world may implement or recommend new screening and/ or prevention guidelines concerning people who have a diet high in red meat and processed meat.

What is next?

Following the WHO’s statement, The Ministry of Health in Israel recommends limiting the amount of red meat, replacing it with fish or chicken, as for processed meat – sausages, hot dogs and more to eat it no more than once a month. Furthermore, it recommends to eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products and to reduce the number of processed foods in general.

The WHO’s report added, further to their study that according to the Global Burden of Disease Project, 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are linked to a heavy diet of processed meat. This may increase public awareness, leading to a surge in the number of patients awaiting screening for colon cancer, to avoid the long waiting times’ patients can take advantage of private hospitals, like Herzliya Medical center (HMC)

Herzliya Medical Center is a leading hospital in Israel. Its oncology department is advanced in its diagnostics and treatment techniques; its multidisciplinary team of specialists creates tailored treatment plans that meet beyond the expectations of the patient. The hospital’s diagnostics and screening are superior to most other hospitals, ensuring an accurate diagnosis; staging of cancer also enables the most appropriate and optimized treatment to be carried out. Unlike public hospitals, HMC is a private hospital; patients can skip the long waiting lines for a specialist and be treated in the shortest time possible by their choice of specialist among a list of the top in Israel.


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