Could eating sausages and bacon cause bowel cancer?

Eating just one sausage or three rashers of bacon a day can increase your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth, newspapers reported last week.

Consuming just 50g (1.8oz) of processed meat on a daily basis can increase risk of the deadly cancer by 20 per cent, but much of the population is unaware of the link.

Processed meats are any that are preserved by smoking, curing, salting or by the addition of preservatives, say the papers, citing ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, hot dogs, processed sausages, and some hamburgers and mince meat as examples.

A bowel cancer screening programme has been introduced in England for those aged 60 to 69, with plans to extend it up to the age of 74.

The story follows a call by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) for people to drastically cut their intake of processed meats.

What is the research?
The story came about as part of the WCRF's ongoing push to warn people of the link between processed meat and bowel cancer.

In an announcement timed to coincide with April as Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, the WCRF highlighted that a YouGov poll of 2,000 people in the UK showed only 30 per cent were aware of the risk.

The WCRF reiterated its previous warnings that eating processed meats and, to a lesser extent, other red meat, can significantly increase the risk of bowel cancer.

In November, the WCRF launched the report 'Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective'. This included a review of 14 cohort studies and 44 case-control studies by an expert panel.

Meta-analysis of cohort data showed a 21 per cent increased risk per 50g consumed daily.

The link could be caused by the nitrite added to processed meats to kill off bacteria. Nitrite can react with the degradation products of amino acids in the meat, to form nitrosamines or nitrosamides, collectively known as N-nitroso compounds, said the WCRF. These can form in the meat during curing or while in the stomach. N-nitroso compounds have been shown to be carcinogenic.

What does the researcher say?
Richard Evans, spokesman for the WCRF, said: 'We're trying to raise awareness but putting it into perspective because we don't want to scare people.'

For example, smoking increases lung cancer 20- to 40-fold, compared with 50g of bacon raising the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth, he said.

'We're not telling people what to do; we're giving them information so that they can make an informed decision.'

What do other experts say?
Dr Marilena Loizidou, a bowel cancer expert at University College London, said: 'Body and cancer causation is incredibly complex.

'It is easy to announce one simple fact, however true it is, and result in people adopting extremist attitudes to diet.

'A balanced diet, with no extreme fads, is best,' she added.

However, large amounts of fibre can protect against bowel cancer, and obesity is also known to increase the risk, said Dr Loizidou.

WCRF report

Informing patients

  • Processed meats contain N-nitroso compounds, which can cause cancer.
  • Eating 50g processed meat a day could up bowel cancer risk by a fifth.
  • Fibre is known to protect against bowel cancer.
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