Cancer Risk and Processed Meat

by Debbie Jeffery, RD

For many, the return to school means packing lunches. A staple of the packed lunch is generally a cold cut sandwich to provide protein and satiety. However, guidelines from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) indicate that it’s time to provide other alternatives. One of the 10 recommendations for cancer prevention from the AICR and World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) is to limit consumption of red meats and to avoid processed meats. Processed meat is defined as meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives. Therefore, ham, bacon, sausage, hot dogs and, yes, deli meats are all considered processed meats. The most recent analysis of global research concluded that eating even small amounts of deli meats or other processed meats on a regular basis increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Studies show that compared to eating no processed meat, eating just 3.5 ounces every day increase colorectal cancer risk by 36% which is why the AICR recommends avoiding these foods except for special occasions.
Why processed meats increase the risk for cancer is not clearly understood. Researchers are exploring some possibilities which include the addition of nitrates/nitrites, smoking and cooking at high temperatures. All of these processes result in the formation of carcinogens. Nitrate/nitrite-free deli meats are relatively new products that are available. However, more research is needed to determine if these products eliminate the cancer risk. Sausage and other processed meats made from turkey or chicken is still smoked, salted or cured and should be carefully limited.
The occasional hot dog at the ballpark or ham at a holiday dinner is unlikely to increase your health risk. Some suggestions to decrease your overall risk are: replace deli meats with fresh chicken or fish; instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy vegetarian sausages; replace sausage in chili and sauces with beans; and try different sources of protein like eggs, cottage cheese, beans and hummus.
For more information refer to the AICR website at